Q&A: The Step-Up From Successful Age Grouper To Pro Ironman

May 11, 2013   //   by Neil Scholes   //   Ask The Coach  //  1 Comment

Question From Emma

Hi Coach,

I have achieved some success as an age grouper in long distance triathlon. I have won my AG at races and qualified and raced well at both the IM and 70.3 world championships. I’m considering giving up work for a year and race with a view to potentially giving it a go as a Pro.

I wondered if what you would ask, discuss with, and advise someone in my position?

What do you consider it takes and what are the key attributes for success?

Response From Coach Neil Scholes

Initially I would look to understand: what is your sporting background; what are your short medium and long term goals in triathlon; where do you see yourself in the sport in 3 months; 1 year; 3 years; what is your dream goal in the sport; what have you or are you willing to give up to meet your goals; what are you not willing to give up; are you just seeing how this goes or are you in your mind (I don’t care what you told your Boss/family etc) wanting this to be your life? It will help me to understand where you are and where you are currently going. I would have you ask yourself; do you want a career like Bree Wee or Mirinda Carfrae?

There are a number of principles that I consider it takes and you will see the majority of your future professional competitors exhibit and all coaches in all sports will champion these. You will already exhibit many of these yourself but these are the pillars of any coaching success story.

The first is consistency of training and recovery. Consistency is the most fundamental aspect of improving your performance in the most efficient way. When training as a professional athlete you must ensure you are setting a plan that is achievable but limit your personal time constraints to achieve your training and professional/sponsor commitments make sure you allow for recovery.

For example, take two athletes who manage 80 hours of training over a four week period.

Athlete A trains:

Week 1 – 24hrs
Week 2 – 13hrs
Week 3 – 17 hrs
Week 4 – 26hrs

Athlete B trains:

Week 1 – 19hrs
Week 2 – 21hrs
Week 3 – 23hrs
Week 4 – 17hrs

Athlete B is probably more likely to remain injury free by only making small increases in their training load and will also improve fitness more efficiently by taking adequate recovery. Coaches can help you stay on a consistent path and sometimes limit what you do!

Composure in tough situations is the second attribute I see it taking. You don’t always see this, you may remember Norman Stadler on the Queen K breaking down as he couldn’t get his tyre off but there are no two ways about it; endurance racing is hard both physically and mentally. You’ve been involved in the sport so you know this but as a pro it is hightened. When you enter the final stages of a race it is not always the strongest or fittest athlete who wins – again look at Macca v’s Andreas in Kona. Do not underestimate the power of your mind. This is especially important for longer distance racing. This is tough to say but don’t ever be “happy with” where you are – “I’m top ten I’m happy with that so I’ll ease off” – stay cool and stay focussed and push bloody hard to the finish.

Common Sense. Endurance racing is not brain surgery. You need to train/recover and race “smart”. Keep things simple. Racing should just be an extension of training – this is all TeamTBB do which is why they can race so often. Simulate “racing” regularly in training, stick to the simple points above and you are sure to do well.

SPECIFICITY. This one is in capital letters deliberately. In my mind this is an important one. You can’t train to be good at everything at all times. This actually is the principle of specificity. Basically, the principle says that if you want to be good at something you must exactly and precisely train for its demands. The demands will be unique and so should the training. (If you want to swim the Channel you need to swim open water, if you want to do triathlon then you need to swim, bike and run at true race pace – this will mean most runs are quite dull as you can go a lot faster but come race day you will merely go through the process you have gone through so many times in training. Ironman is a purely aerobic sport so the closer you get to your most important challenge the more like the race your training must become.

I’m not trying to tell you how to suck eggs, so before you think “I’m doing all of this” what I’m saying is the difference is it is now your “job” to DO all of this.

Some other important pillars of success are :

Patience – Look how long Julie Dibbens, Rinny, Caroline Steffen all waited before giving Ironman a shot. Many quality IM performers weren’t on any elite triathlon programme as a junior and have done their time and hard yards coming through the ranks of the AG world as a “journeywoman” and found a niche particularly in the longer races. You have built up a solid background and now as a professional you can build on that but be patient. Rachel Joyce may be a good example of this.

Expectations and realistic pacing – We must know what you are capable of. This is extremely important from both a mental and physical standpoint. Are you living the pro life style for a while and see what happens or are you determined to be “professional” and perform as a professional? Any professional athlete who toes the starting line, having made all of the necessary sacrifices, should have the HOPE of winning. But, when it comes to pacing their effort, these same athletes need to be very realistic of what they can expect of their bodies, based upon what they have been able to accomplish in training. It is not uncommon to see an athlete who WANTS to go 9:00 in Ironman but is only CAPABLE of going 9:30, over-pacing the bike, having trouble with their nutrition, and not coming within an hour of their “goal” time, thus being extremely disappointed in their efforts and the sacrifices made along the way. Frustration is taken out on the preparation, when the appropriate target should be the athlete’s expectations and pacing. Developing a pacing plan and setting appropriate expectations are not rocket science. Using your training indicators, you should be able to predict, quite closely, what your finish time, and race execution strategy should look like.

I think lastly when you are a professional it is not about getting paid to do what you do, if that were important then we’d all be golfers (32nd in the Masters gets more than Pete Jacobs for winning Kona) or tennis players.

It is about being professional in your outlook and behaviours.

Where a coach or coaching team can help in this process is to take the burden off the athlete, to look outward which allows the athlete to look inward and just concentrate and allow the athlete to be professional in the process of training, racing and recovery. A coach can be a sounding block and provide independent, objective words and advice and an independent shoulder when it is needed away from family and loved ones but coaches can also be perceived as being hard because they may not let you take an extra day off – but they will always have a reason for doing so. A coach might get you to ease off in a race to succeed in another but again they will have reasons for that.

These are all things to consider. I hope this provides some food for thought :) Feel free to get in touch to chat further!

About The Author

Neil is one of the most knowledgeable endurance coaches you'll ever be likely to meet, both in terms of qualifications and valuable experience. He's well into his second decade in the sport of triathlon and third decade as a competitive runner.

In recent years Neil has worked with Runners, from those looking to complete their first 5k through to Elites racing the Olympic Marathon, and Triathletes, from those looking to finish their first ever sprint event, through Age Group medallists at World Championships, Ironman Age Group winners to the Elite Squad at University of Bath.

As an accomplished Ironman triathlete, Neil races for Royal Navy Triathlon and has represented Great Britain at Age Group Level across various distances.

2013 has seen him run a sub 3hr at the Rotterdam Marathon, then complete his second 56 mile Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa in June; he is now making his return to racing Ironman Triathlon.

Neil is available for Triathlon & Running Coaching.


1 Comment

  • Great article! I’ve been considering “going pro” with running. I’m no where near the speed level, but my job would allow me to be able to put in the same time that elites put it. I would just be running a lot slower for a few years ;)

    Something else Emma should consider is, what would she get from going PRO? For sponsorship and maybe even psychological purposes, it may be better to be a front of the pack age grouper than a back of the pack pro?

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