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Performance Plan for an Aspiring Olympian

Dr. Andy Kirkland outlines what it will take for an aspiring young triathlete to go pro, illuminating a biopsychosocial approach to season planning.

Graphic of vision, mission, and philosophy intertwined with each other

Setting the goal of qualifying for the Olympics is a huge undertaking, and it is reliant on the athlete’s belief that they can perform against the very best athletes in the world. Many athletes may have the genetic potential to succeed but only a few make it. Athletes who get there typically have an innate need to win and follow the necessary processes to make it a reality.  

In Randy’s case, an initial inspection of his training and race data suggests that he has the genetic potential, which is a pre-requisite. However, to progress to goal attainment requires planning that goes far beyond setting an annual training plan. My work with Randy requires that I lay a foundation for a successful partnership and outline the performance milestones en route to Randy’s goal. We will map a strategy to get Randy to the Olympics after addressing these critical objectives. 

1. Establish a partnership and shore up support 

Stage 1 of my plan is always to develop trust and rapport with the athlete. While this takes time, it is vital that we have confidence in each other’s ability and that we get along. I also need to explore Randy’s understanding of what his goal will require of him. Randy hasn’t yet experienced the benefit of being supported by a USAT development program, so he has not competed in draft-legal triathlon, nor has he won a major age-group race. So, he will have to cover the majority of costs for Year 1 and Year 2. With international travel, medical expenses, equipment, and day-to-day living, these costs could be comparable to studying at an Ivy League college. His parents have agreed to support him, so I also arranged a meeting with them to ensure that they know what to expect. Family support can be decisive in achieving performance goals, so I feel it’s important to include them in the planning processes.  

2. Identify the Milestones Leading to the Goal 

Stage 2 involves outlining what performance outcomes Randy will need to achieve to compete at the Olympics. Qualifying requirements sometimes change between Olympic cycles. However, Randy will likely need to finish top-8 in a qualifying World Triathlon Championship Series event and be ranked in the top 3 athletes in the U.S. in Year 3. To do this, Randy will need to achieve an elite race license and USAT-tiered funding relatively quickly. He will also have to race abroad and achieve consistently good results almost straightaway. Year 1 will require considerable upfront investment, and great results will help him achieve sponsorship.  

3. Develop a Strategic Plan 

Stage 3 of my plan is focused on helping Randy design a strategic plan. I approach this task much in the same way as a entrepreneur would prepare to pitch a business idea to investors.  

Within the strategic plan, Randy and I will come to agreement on the vision, mission, and philosophy that will shape his training. Part of the coach-athlete relationship involves helping athletes make the right decisions, and referring back to this strategic plan will be very helpful in this regard. My knowledge, values, and beliefs influence how I coach, and these must be consistent with Randy’s. He is very proud that he has trained hard and “mixed it up” with some of the best in Boulder, Colorado. From a coaching perspective, this concerns me a little.

One of my beliefs surrounding mental toughness is that athletes must be brave enough to stand out from the crowd, which typically means training with restraint and discipline. In reviewing Randy’s training diary from last year, I came to believe his bandwidth was likely too narrow and contained too many “smash it” workouts. Add in a regular schedule of traveling to races, particularly one that includes international travel, and an athlete like Randy can very quickly find himself fighting burnout.  

Randy and I came to agree on four strategic drivers with the performance program and design. These points are fundamental to how I coach and part of the expertise I have in sport. I don’t adhere to any particular coaching methods or approaches. Rather, I consider myself a “chameleon coach.” I am committed to developing custom performance programs that go beyond managing training loads and prescribing sessions. These strategic drivers explain the “why” of what I ask athletes to do and avoid the B.S. that’s often associated with performance sport.  

Designing the 3-year macrocycle 

When planning for a 4-year Olympic cycle, an annual plan effectively functions as a mesocycle. It must be aligned to the bigger plan—in this case, a 3-year macrocycle. Randy must deliver on several pre-requisite, performance-related factors each year in order to qualify for the Olympics, outlined here:

Year 1

  • Finish Top 3 in elite development race
  • Achieve USAT elite license
  • Compete in a draft-legal event

Year 2

  • Win at ITU Continental Cup level
  • Race in ITU WTC series event
  • Achieve USAT team selection

Year 3

  • Achieve Top 10 in ITU WTC series events
  • Gain selection at Olympic qualifier
  • Race at the Olympic Games

By talking through what is involved in the macrocycle, Randy will better understand what he needs to do to succeed.  

Annual Plan for Year 1

Many traditional ways to design annual training plans are based on flawed assumptions, specifically that physiological adaptation is predictable and linear. Rather, training adaptations are dependent on the complex interaction between physiological factors, mental factors, and the social environment in which the athlete lives and trains. Randy lives in Boulder, at altitude, with great facilities. But Boulder is also a pressure cooker filled with talented athletes, which can be stressful for many athletes. This model from John Kiely (a senior lecturer in elite performance) illustrates the factors that influence training adaptation, and I always consider them when building a program:  

Because of these factors, I will design a very basic annual plan with key races and performance benchmark dates that the athlete and I agree on.

I also have a ”What It Takes to Win” spreadsheet that allows me to break down all performance demands of racing and the other demands of living a performance lifestyle. The spreadsheet will include columns for specific race paces and power-profiling. It will also have a wide array of technical, tactical, and psychological factors, as well as more tangential (yet important) things like having a sustainable income. I don’t use this spreadsheet as a prescriptive tool, but rather as a guide to help the athlete decide short- and medium-term training priorities.  

Like many coaches, from there I will usually plan training on a seven-day rolling basis using an iterative training model. I have a few ideas on how I’d like to approach the first phase of training. I hope to keep Randy engaged, improve his muscular endurance and power on the bike, and begin to address any obvious gaps in his training and physiology.  

Leverage group rides and diverse training environments

While I think Randy has too often focused on smashing his group workouts, I will prioritize group training sessions at times. It’s important for athletes to interact with others of a similar ability and to continue to enjoy training. It is also important to ensure athletes train in a variety of different environments. Triathletes in particular need to regularly swim in open water. Racing on the international circuit demands an ability to cope with a wide range of conditions and courses, and this preparation needs to be accounted for in the plan. Implementation of this type of preparation does not always fit a “tidy” training program.  

Build power for short-course racing

Randy’s training data indicates that he has trained more like a 70.3- or 140.6-distance athlete at steady-state intensities. This held true in his hard group rides. However, a draft-legal athlete must be able to race in a group. In a one-hour bike leg this means accelerating out of corners at power outputs greater than 600W, as much as 50–60 times.

Last season Randy was also doing just one weekly strength session, and without supervision. One of the first things I will do is to arrange a dynamic movement screening with a physiotherapist. Next I will find a good strength and conditioning coach to optimize his training for the specific demands of racing.

I arranged for Randy to race a Crit City Criterium on Zwift as an early “benchmark” session. This was positive in one regard—he averaged over 300W but he struggled to hit over 500W in the second half of the race. This tells me that the priority is to work on his efforts of one-minute or less.   

Observe athlete preference in training

Early on, I often invite athletes to choose how they want to train in some workouts. Athletes will typically do the sessions that they most enjoy. If they gravitate toward harder sessions (which I expect Randy to do), it tells me that we need to work on endurance. Again, there’s a tremendous degree of mental toughness involved in triathlon. I don’t talk about it in this way with athletes because they equate mental toughness with pushing hard. It’s equally important to be able to go easy. For example, I am curious about whether Randy can run over 8-minute miles. Doing so will undoubtedly seem inefficient and cause his legs to feel heavy. This is why athletes tend to change the feeling of these easy sessions, but getting the legs to feel good in easy sessions can really lift to performance later in the season.  

Once we are a few months into the season, it’s my hope that Randy will become more comfortable with my coaching methodology and the trust will continue to build from there.