Melanie McQuaid, a three-time XTERRA world champion and owner of MelRad Coaching, joins us to discuss how to judge fatigue, the effects of overtraining, and the so-called “crossover effect” between running and cycling.
Our first question comes from Matthew Eastwood.
He writes: “After years of road racing, where I would struggle with prolonged periods of fatigue in between periods of good form, I now compete in cyclocross and sprint triathlon events as a master’s racer. I’m 43 years old with a more relaxed attitude to competition and training, and just enjoy exercise and riding my bike in general. My main focus is enjoying myself and feeling like I have given my all; my actual result is secondary to this. My ‘training’ is based around how I feel on any given day: If I’m tired I exercise easy, or not at all. If I feel good I train hard; my definition of ‘hard’ is dependent on time available and weather. If I have all day on a sunny day and I feel like it, I might do three to five hours of hard riding in the hills. If it’s a rainy evening I might do some sweet spot or other intervals on the rollers, or do a 5k running race. My question is: How good a guide is feel (achy muscles, enthusiasm, mood, tiredness) and fatigue (mild or intense), in terms of avoiding overtraining, burnout, and illness?”
Our next question comes from Sophie, a 27-year-old age-group triathlete dealing with, as she puts it, “some form of non-functional overreaching.”
While the background information from Sophie is lengthy, it helps to reveal some of the thought-process that an athlete goes through when trying to understand his or her training status, whether it is leading to overreaching or overtraining, and the all-important coach/athlete relationship. She writes:
“I have a soccer background, playing professionally until 24 when I started my triathlon ‘career’. Since then I’ve had a couple small successes, winning overall women age-group categories and coming third in the 25-29 age group at the 70.3 Worlds Championship in 2018. My first three years in triathlon, starting in 2016, I trained under a coach who basically had me start from scratch and build up volume relatively quickly. I managed it quite well, however, it was certainly not 80/20, more like 100% in Zone 3. Considering that I lost my period, was probably in serious energy deficit, and also did a lot of competitions, I’m surprised I had such a stunning 2018.
After that, I was extremely motivated to continue improving and closing the gap to the pros even further. I put in huge winter training and ended up ‘peaking’ by around February 2019. By then I was probably still in a functional overreaching state. However, things went downhill from there. I had a crash with an open and infected wound. I rested two weeks after which my coach sent me straight into four weeks of 20+ hours a week followed by four weeks of competition. I performed reasonably well, but I was completely exhausted by the start of July when I should’ve started my prep for my A race. I decided to pull the plug and switch coaches, as he didn’t understand I needed some rest.
I found another coach who agreed to take me for my A race prep. However, he could also not magically unmake my previous months, so I ended up having a poor race. I took a break and switched coaches again to a regional coach here, who knows me well. I regained my period, I slowed down (through periodization), and everything became better. We then picked up the intensity again and when COVID-19 hit, the idea was to work on my weakness—the run. The weird thing was that, despite my overall recovery, the run performance kind of lacked behind and continued to do so. Maybe it became psychological at some point.
This summer I think I was doing too much intensity again. I tried the Rønnestad eight-week block. I could improve my 20-minute power on the bike to 257 Watts (as compared to 245 Watts before). However, after that I didn’t recover anymore. Now I’m scared I ended up being really overtrained. My performance went down, my resting heart rate was higher than normal, and sometimes I have this feeling of burning legs. However, my mood is fine, I’m sleeping eight hours a night, I have a regular period, my energy levels are fine, and (very important for me!) my motivation to train is high. So I don’t really know…I decided to cut back my intensity to no more than one hard-ish bike and one hard-ish run a week while all other sessions are at 60-65 percent of HRmax, except swimming which I do with maybe a little more intensity. My total hours per week are about 18 at the moment. I already feel better after 2.5 weeks like this but I’m scared I will do something wrong which could leave me in a really bad state. I also don’t know whether it is better to be self-coached until this is getting really better.
So finally to my questions. Do you think I eventually made the right call adapting my training like this? How would you explain that I could improve significantly in two disciplines (swimming and biking) whereas the run lags behind? Could it be a ‘leftover’ from 2019 where I dug too deep? And, finally, what would your step-by-step procedure be for someone who maybe was or is overtrained?”
Our final question comes from Mackenzie O’Donnell from Edmonton, Alberta. He writes:
“I’m a runner and a cyclist, but I’m not a triathlete. I tend to run more in the winter months and gradually transition more to cycling as the weather gets nicer. But I never stop running. So, my questions are, is the running helping or hurting my cycling, and vice versa? And, also, if it helps, how do I most effectively incorporate the two sports into one training plan?”
Chris Case 00:12
Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of Fast Talk your source for the science of endurance performance.
Steve Neal 00:20
Hey, Fast Talk listeners, this is coach Steve Neal. You may have heard me on the podcast in the past, and now I’m here as an official part of the team. I’m really excited to be here at Fast Talk Labs to be able to bring my decades of coaching knowledge to you. You’ll see me on the forum, adding my advice to your specific training and questions, I have helped over 100 athletes through the INSCYD test, and now when you take your INSCYD test with us, you’ll be tapping into my wealth of knowledge and experience about this test and how to best interpret the results. Training optimally requires knowledge of your own body, as well as the expert analysis of coaches that know these numbers, and how they play out for real athletes on the road. Sign up for your INSCYD test now at fasttalklabs.com.
Chris Case 01:07
We’re sitting down today with Melanie McQuaid, Melanie, thanks for joining us on Fast Talk.
Melanie McQuaid 01:14
Thank you so much for having me, you guys.
Introduction to Melanie McQuaid
Chris Case 01:16
And Melanie is a three-time XTERRA world champion, she’s got some multi-sport World Championships in there as well. She is still a pro, she’s patiently waiting to race again, and she’s perfecting her coaching skills with MelRad Coaching. So, you bring a wealth of information, a wealth of experience to the program today, not only as a triathlete, I think that it’s worth emphasizing you’ve raced kind of every kind of bike and done a lot of different types of racing. So, your experience is vast.
Melanie McQuaid 01:48
Staying motivated and goal-oriented and training hard is absolutely the fountain of youth. So, I think it is in everyone’s best interest to do their best to keep at it as long as you can.
Trevor Connor 02:03
Chris Case 02:04
Let’s jump right into the questions, shall we?
Melanie McQuaid 02:06
Let’s do it.
Questions for Melanie McQuaid
Chris Case 02:07
This first one comes from Matthew Eastwood, and he writes, “after years of road racing, where I would struggle with prolonged periods of fatigue in between periods of good form, I now compete in cyclocross and sprint triathlon events as a Master’s racer, I’m 43 years old with a more relaxed attitude to competition and training and just enjoy exercise and riding my bike in general. My main focus is enjoying myself and feeling like I have given my all my actual result is secondary to this. My quote, unquote training is based around how I feel on any given day, if I’m tired, I exercise easy or not at all. If I feel good, I train hard. My definition of hard is dependent on time availability, and weather. If I have all day on a sunny day, and I feel like it, I might do three to five hours of hard riding in the hills. If it is a rainy evening, I might do some sweet spot or other intervals on the rollers or do a 5k running race. My question is, how good a guide is feel? Achy muscles, enthusiasm, mood, tiredness and fatigue, mild or intense, in terms of avoiding overtraining, burnout and illness? Melanie, we will turn to you first. What do you think?
Is Feel a Good Training Guide?
Melanie McQuaid 03:20
I think it’s really interesting that he’s chosen to go to shorter and faster races, which I think is a good choice, especially when you want to make it more fun and head to head type racing. So, I see that for sure, for athletes that feel like their time crunched, that they don’t have to suffer for as long if they feel like they haven’t been able to get the hours in. I think when I when I look at his overall philosophy, I agree that sometimes when you don’t feel like doing something that’s just a really, like strong indication that you’re just reading your body correctly, like most people are very motivated and feel like training. So, when you don’t feel like doing it, or you don’t feel like going hard, you’re probably right, it’s probably not the right day to do that. If I were coaching him, I would say on the days that he has three to five hours to ride hard, to ride the five hours easy and just enjoy the day, and then and then save the short rainy days to just smash himself with really, really short intervals and work on his maximum power and maximum intensity, because probably like all he needs to do is just enough stuff to maintain his mitochondrial density for the races that he’s doing, he doesn’t really need to do stuff like sweet spot, particularly for older athletes, I don’t think sweet spot is really a beneficial zone for anybody over 40. I think that he could probably just ride even easier and enjoy it even more, and then on days where he has been little time, he can do things like, you know, five by a minute as hard as he can with five minutes rest, and probably that combination would make him faster. And that’s what I would say for this overall program is on the days where he feels good to really go as hard as possible in a really short period of time to maintain his explosiveness, which is the toughest thing for athletes over 40, and then not to need to do anything on his long rides, but go and enjoy a long ride.
Trevor Connor 05:34
Also, the thing that immediately came to mind for me when you read his question, and I heard about this a long time ago, so I don’t know if this is actually truth or urban legend, but the story goes back in the 80s, the German cycling team or the national cycling team lived in a house where they had physiologists downstairs and every morning, they’d get up, come down, the physiologist would test them get a sense of where they were at, where their recovery was at, and then they would design their training each day based on how they tested. The claim was, what made them such a dominant force in cycling was that they were adjusting day-by-day. So, I do think there is something to what he’s talking about in terms of the use how you feel as a guide, and if you’re really not feeling it on a day, adjust the plan accordingly, and not always try to force through the intervals. The flip side of that is to keep in mind that training is hard, and if you want to get strong, fatigue and aches and pains are kind of part of the game. So, if every time you’re feeling fatigued, every time you’re feeling pain, you say, well, I’m not going to go hard today, I’m just going to do that easy ride, you’re never really going to get fit. So, it’s finding that balance of knowing when to say, okay, this is this is the wrong type of fatigue, I’m really dragging my feet I need to back down, versus yeah, that’s just part of training.
Chris Case 07:00
He doesn’t mention it here, unfortunately. He doesn’t give a total number of hours he’s training in an average week. Is there a rule of thumb, so I guess I’m leading to the question of, can someone if they’re training solely on feel, without using any data for guidance, are you more likely to overtrain or not? And I guess I’m asking about his weekly load or volume, because I’m wondering if you could ever get a quote, unquote overtrained if you’re only doing eight hours a week? So, that’s maybe a two-part question.
Using Feel as a Guide and Overtraining
Melanie McQuaid 07:40
I’ve listened to a lot of what Dr. Shawna Halston has to say, and she did a study with AIS, so like, like high-level, elite athletes training in that center, and she said the incidence of overtraining was very low, like the chances of you becoming getting like actual overtraining syndrome is very, very low, you can become under-recovered that you just do more than your body can adapt to in a short period of time. But generally, if you just rest that resolves itself, and you can, you can have like prolonged nervous system, like it’s almost like being in a depressive fog when you’ve really like depressed your nervous system. So, it can feel pretty bad if you’ve overdone it, but you’re probably not in a state of overtraining syndrome. What I think is more common than overtraining in Masters athletes, is overdoing the middle and just becoming slow, and what you can do is, you can train a bunch of exactly what he says here like sweet spot intervals where you’re doing the maximum amount of intensity that you can combine with volume, and that zone three type effort is appropriate, maybe for younger athletes that need to stretch their ability to suffer a little bit, they have higher ability to recover from those kind of efforts so they can just dig bigger holes. I think it’s also kind of more important for road athletes that do really long races where they’re going to spend quite a period of time if the Peloton is really rolling in that zone, and it’s appropriate for Ironman athletes, because generally that’s kind of Ironman pace. But in training for like a Masters athlete, that kind of stuff really makes your nervous system tired, it erodes your ability to do something quite a bit harder, you know, like something that’s more like zone five like explosive, and since older athletes are, you know, experiencing sarcopenia they’re losing muscle fibers, they are also losing type two interchangeable fibers that allow them to be explosive or at least like, opt in for some explosiveness, that kind of training makes you feel tired when really you’re just not properly tuned. So, my guess is that, like a, like a 43 year old athlete who’s just kind of racing for fun, it’s unlikely he’s going to overtrain, but it’s very likely that he’s going to train himself slower, you know, he’s going to do a lot of stuff, and then just get quite slow. If we wanted to look at this from, you know, from his comments on doing sprint triathlon, and racing, 5K’s that kind of training when you just kind of do that middle pace and running is particularly detrimental, because running economy is based on either mileage, or speed work and so without, like, usually it’s a combination of those two, but at least an appreciable amount of either your running economy is really poor, and so that makes your running get quite a bit slower. So, Shona would say, it’s probably your training, you’re not overtrained.
Trevor Connor 11:09
What came to mind for me is, I remember one of my first mentors telling me, if all you ever do is ride at 19 miles an hour, you get really good at going 19 miles an hour, which feels fast on a training ride, but if you’re in a race, that’s certainly not going to win anything, and that’s kind of what you’re doing with that sweet spot. If that’s all the work that you’re doing, you’re just kind of sitting yourself in that one, that one pace, and it makes you slow. I don’t have it in front of me, but I actually read a really good study on specificity that looked at, I think it was 5k runners, it was around that sort of distance, to see how they trained and showed that they did almost no training at that pace, they either went much longer at slower pace, or they did shorter work at much faster, but did almost no training at the actual, their actual 5k pace.
Melanie McQuaid 12:01
No matter what the distance, you always get somewhat specific as you get closer to it, and that’s why it’s always awkward in triathlon to talk about zone three being a bad zone, because the one three for a lot of disciplines of triathlon is race pace. So, then it gets really confusing, right? Because you’re telling people to go race pace, which is zone three, at certain times of the year. So, like, there’s times when potentially the sweet spot or his own three, well not really for the races he’s doing, but if you were doing longer races would be appropriate. It’s just you don’t want to be doing that specific stuff all the time, because just as like you said, Trevor, you just get slow, because your body just won’t adapt to that same stimulus all the time.
Overtraining and Finding the Right Coach
Chris Case 12:49
We have another question here that will perhaps lead to even more discussion around the idea of overtraining and some of these concepts. So, let’s jump to that one. It has a bit of a background that we’ll have to read through but because of that background, you can I think it reveals a bit about the athletes thought process, and hopefully will help us highlight some of the maybe the mistakes she’s made or the concepts that we want to speak about. So, let me get into it. It comes from Sophie, she’s a 27-year-old age group triathlete dealing with as she puts it, “some form of non-functional overreaching.” So, here’s what she writes, “I have a soccer background playing professionally until 24 when I started my triathlon career,” she puts career in quotes, “since then, I’ve had a couple small successes winning overall women age group categories and coming third in the 25 to 29 age group at the 70.3 World Championships in 2018. My first three years in triathlon starting in 2016, I trained under a coach who basically had me start from scratch and build up volume relatively quickly. I managed it quite well, however, it was certainly not 80/20, more like 100% in zone three. Considering that I lost my period was probably in serious energy deficit and also did a lot of competitions, I’m surprised I had such a stunning 2018. After that, I was extremely motivated to continue improving and closing the gap to the pros even further. I put in huge winter training and ended up peaking around February 2019, by then I was probably still in a functional overreaching state. However, things went downhill from there. I had a crash with an open infected wound I rested two weeks, after which my coach sent me straight into four weeks of 20 plus hours a week followed by four weeks of competition. I performed reasonably well but I was completely exhausted by the start of July when I should have started my prep for my target race or a race. I decided to pull the plug and switch coaches, as this current coach didn’t understand I needed some rest. I found another coach who agreed to take me for my A race prep. However, he could also not magically unmake my previous months. So, I ended up having a poor race. I took a break and switched coaches yet again, to regional coach here, someone who knows me well. I regained my period, I slowed down through periodization, and everything became better. We then picked up the intensity again, and when COVID-19 hit, the idea was to work on my weaknesses or weakness, the run. The weird thing was that despite my overall recovery, the run performance kind of lagged behind, and continued to do so, maybe it became psychological at some point. This summer, I think I was doing too much intensity again, I tried the Rona stat, eight week block, I could improve my 20-minute power on the bike to 257 watts as compared to 245 before, however, that, after that I didn’t recover anymore. Now I’m scared, I ended up being really overtrained, my performance went down, my resting heart rate was higher than normal, and sometimes I have this feeling of burning legs, however, my mood is fine, I’m sleeping eight hours a night, I have a regular period, my energy levels are fine, and very important to me, my motivation to train is high. So, I don’t really know, I decided to cut back my intensity to no more than one hardish bike and one hardish run a week, while all other sessions are at 60-65% of heart rate max, except swimming, which I do with maybe a little more intensity. My total hours per week are about 18 at the moment. I already feel better after two and a half weeks like this, but I’m scared I will do something wrong, which could leave me in a really bad state. I also don’t know whether it is better to be self-coached, until this is getting really better. So, finally to my questions. Do you think I eventually made the right call adapting my training like this? How would you explain that I could improve significantly in two disciplines, swimming and biking, whereas the run lags behind? Could it be a leftover from 2019 where I dug too deep? And finally, what would your step-by-step procedure be for me who maybe was or is overtrained?” Mel, there are a ton to unpack here, I know you’ve read this question in this background in preparation for the show. What are your initial thoughts here on Sophie’s situation?
Melanie McQuaid 17:33
Here we have someone who played professional soccer, if you’re playing soccer professionally, you are an outstanding athlete full stop, like you’re an elite athlete. For her to come into triathlon, it’s like if she can swim in my estimation, she can be a pro. For her to come top three in her age group at World’s for me is an of course she would. So, that just tells me she hasn’t said too much about what her strengths and weaknesses are, but she’s obviously can swim, she you know, placed like right at the top at what is essentially the biggest race for age groupers in Ironman. If we just kind of go right up to when like everything was happy in 2018, what I look at is you take like an outstanding athlete who has incredible potential, and you train them 100% specifically for the day, week in week out, your are out for three years, and they get really good at just that one speed, and that one task. She was specifically trained to do well at that race, but unfortunately, what she came to the table with was probably like massive explosiveness, a lot of running speed, potentially some run endurance, but it would be more stochastic, right? Because in soccer, I guess the games are probably I don’t know that much about soccer, but I’m pretty sure it’s a 90-minute game, so you’re running around for 90-minutes, but you generally don’t run in a straight line, you don’t run consistently, they just applied a lot of specificity to somebody who had a really strong engine and probably what happened after that is that she just lost capacity probably her biggest weakness overall for a race that’s four and a half hours long was just based endurance. So, she probably need to just do a whole lot of zone two and let all of her natural speed from soccer just speak for itself, and that might have been the best way to come into the sport. So, without going any further in this question about the rest of the stuff and talking about her run stats and stuff like that, what do you think?
Trevor Connor 19:52
I actually really liked that you focused in on the her soccer career before the triathlon, that you had that context, and I think you’ve made some really good points, and listening to you, this is something I hadn’t thought about when I read the question. But it’s kind of the picture I’m getting now, which is, her first coach, got this athlete who, as you said, was phenomenally gifted, had already been a professional athlete, I think saw the potential here and pushed her too far too quick, you know, I’ve had this conversation with athletes before of, you know, we can get you to a really good result in a year or two, but it’s kind of a burnout routine. I think it’s the responsibility of a coach to say, even though we can get somebody there quickly, we’re going to take our time and build them successfully, so that they can have a long career, and that’s exactly what wasn’t done with this athlete, they went for the quick results, got some great results, but I think they should have taken longer, as you said, transitioned her to a sport that even she had great fitness requires different assets, and built her up to it and look to get the results later on.
Blocks of Focus
Melanie McQuaid 21:08
Yeah, and so and then I think if we keep going and you know, she’s switched coaches a couple of times, and we all know like, with four weeks or something like that, all you can really do is not screw an athlete up, you really can’t do anything, for an athlete at that point, I think she was just losing a lot of faith in coaching. So, the Ronstadt eight week block, that that program is when you either do five, I think it’s like threshold like five-by-five minutes or something like that, you do five days in a row of that wor, and then you do it one day a week after for, I don’t know, I thought it was four weeks at a time, like maybe you do, I don’t know the exact I know what it means, and he’s like you’re doing a block of like, really hard work, and then you just maintain once a week, and they compare it against doing two threshold type workouts per week, and I don’t remember the specifics of it. But that program that she’s doing, or that she did with her bike is actually a strategy that I use quite frequently with athletes of mine. Certainly, I don’t do five-by-five minutes every day for five days in a row, but I think for triathletes, it is beneficial to have blocks of focus, because and I’m going to talk about this a little further down, you don’t need to train everything, in every quality in every sport every week. So, I think that’s a mistake that a lot of coaches make, and I think that’s a mistake a lot of athletes make when they coach themselves is they think, okay, well, let’s take a runner, yeah, for instance, runners do a tempo run, they do some kind of threshold or speed run, and then they do a long run, and then the rest of it is just like, you know, fluff around that, and so then they might come to triathlon and they’re like, well, I have to do my threshold run, and I have to do my you know, intervals, and then I have to do my long run, and, you know, if you fit those three days in, and then and then you’re you come to it and your coach says well, you have to do you know, the your VO2 max for the bike, and you have to do your strength intervals, and you have to do a long ride. So, now you’ve got in a week, you’ve got six different interval sessions that you’re trying to cram into seven days, and then on top of that, of course, you have to do turnover for swimming, and you have to do a long swim, you got to swim up water, you got to do, I don’t know, you know, hundreds or five seconds rest, I don’t know, I’m just making this stuff up, because it’s all ridiculous. But it meant you need a week that’s like, you know, a month long. So, the point being that your body doesn’t know the difference between what sport you’re doing to a point. I’m well aware that you know, you need to have some sport specificity in your training, but in terms of getting all those energy systems in, within like a reasonable amount of time for your body to adapt, you don’t have to do all of these intervals. If we go back to the Ronstadt, the nice thing about it is that you try to spread out this stuff a little further, but then for some athletes, they respond really well to like bigger blocks of training, and it’s a lot safer to pack together four or five days of riding than it is to pack together five days of running, just because of the impact stress of running. So, I do like the idea of once a month and generally like I personally do it once every three or four weeks, definitely once a month, and then with a lot of athletes that I coach that don’t have as much time to like pack together as many days, if they have long weekend, for instance, and they have like a day off work very often we’ll turn that into like a three day camp where they ride like somewhere between three and six hours a day for three days in a row, and they really do a block, and so she talks about an eight week block and it doesn’t surprise me that she would have like a little bump in terms of her capacity there for after that, because she did get really sport specific for a period of time. I think it was more the fact that she just rode her bike more that did that, I don’t know if it’s necessarily like the protocol that she used. Then if we go to her saying that, you know, she focused on her running, and she hasn’t really like experienced any improvement, se just didn’t say, what is the quality of her running that isn’t good? Can she run her 5k capacity if she’s not biking before? But then she runs crappy off the bike? Or is it just her running at all times, not what she expected based on what she could run before she was a triathlete? So, those are questions that I would have to ask him her, but the thing about running is that you have to run fast to run well, and you have to be fresh enough to run fast, and so you have to make room for that, in order to be fast, and no matter what distance of triathlon you do, you have to make room for some fast running to you know, improve your mechanics and elasticity. So, I think for her, she’s just trying to do a lot of stuff and I don’t know that she’s creating enough room for her to fit the right stuff in at the right time, and it’s just difficult to figure out how she’s judging herself on on not performing.
Trevor Connor 26:23
What this reminds me of actually, is when we had you on the show before talking about triathlon, where you said, you have to think of triathlon as a single sport, not three separate sports that are back to back, and you even just brought that up with your questions is, if she’s a slow runner? Or is she a slow runner after doing a 40k time trial on the bike? And is she killing herself in that 40k not leaving some room for the running? Certainly, the impression I got from the coach that was cooking her, there is a bit of culture in triathlon of overtraining and under-recovery. That comes from this whole idea of well, you have to train all three sports equally. So, you are just doing interval work all the time, you’re doing multiple workouts a day, and there’s no room for rest or recovery. I remember talking with a triathlete where I told her, “You need to recovery day,” and she was like, “So, I swim?” Like, “no, you sit on the couch.” “So, I run?” And I was like, “No, you take a day off.” Like, you could just hear the fear from the idea of having a day of not training. It sounds like the coach that she initially worked with had that mentality of, you got to train all three sports really hard all the time, and not seeing how the whole thing fits together, and how to keep it in balance.
Melanie McQuaid 27:44
She wants to do Ironman stuff, and the amount of time that she’s putting into it is close to what some professional athletes would put in, and my question is, what else does she do outside of this? So, she’s training 18 hours a week, and she’s feeling much better at 18 versus 20, but how much work that she do? How strenuous is her work? Those are questions that I would have for her, and I think that for triathletes, they can carry, like a lot of hours, so triathletes can successfully do more hours even then cyclists can do so to a certain extent, yeah, like they do train a lot. I think that I was training somewhere around 30 hours a week, a lot, and it’s because like some of its non-weight bearing altogether. So, swimming can be quite restorative for athletes, and if you build up to it, then yeah, it really is rest day to just go for an easy run, but you have to build up to that with a significant amount of really low-intensity mileage. I think that what just isn’t translating sometimes when athletes come into the sport is how low-intensity that mileage actually has to be. My guess is that when she ran easy, and when she was playing soccer, it wasn’t very slow, or maybe they didn’t do mileage work? Like, I’m truly ignorant as to how to train as an elite soccer player, but I’m just trying to imagine like, they’d have to do some conditioning because the game is quite long, but the objective is to get to the ball first. So, it’s acceleration most of the time, so but then it’s like repeat acceleration, it’s almost like repeat strength sprint training would be the bread and butter of what they did. So, for her it’s just making sure does she actually have a base of capacity to put into this? And then what is she calling hard? She’s saying one hardish and one hardish, like run and bike, what does hardish mean? Who knows is that zone three? So, that’s her hard now? So, she’s just going easy and sort of hard, which that’s bad, you know, just go easy and then go hard. Don’t bother with the hardish, like, go for it.
Trevor Connor 29:56
Chris Case 30:11
A question that comes to my mind, and Trevor was somewhat alluding to this, and I know you’re both biased, because you’re both coaches, but it seems like fitting all of the pieces together of the triathlon training puzzle is complicated, and you can overdo it quickly. So, you know, again, you’re biased, but do you see more mistakes being made when people tried to train themselves at triathlon, versus just cycling or just running or just swimming? Yeah. So, you would recommend that they get a coach to help them figure it all out?
Mistakes Made When Self-Coaching for a Triathlon
Melanie McQuaid 30:51
Alright, so if I talk about self-coaching, from my own experience, when I came into XTERRA, there really weren’t coaches for XTERRA, so I had to figure out how to coach myself, even when I switched over to Ironman, by the time I was what moving into the Ironman discipline, I tried getting a coach a couple of times, and even though I was committed to and had to coach, like, I just didn’t have good results, you know, so like, even finding a coach that’s gonna work for you, sometimes is complicated and knowing what’s going to work for you, but making sure that you find somebody that you have good communication with, I think, is everything because more than anything, you’re just trying to learn what works for you. I think that had I had a coach that I could discuss the intricacies of the, you know, the full distance Ironman at length and talk about what my experiences with trying to cover that distance with somebody who was really knowledgeable, even just having that, like frank conversation about discussing you as a project is, it’s so beneficial, right? I think that most of what I see is athletes don’t see themselves in the right light, like, you just need some perspective, and that I think is the hardest part of of self-coaching is you have to be able to distance yourself from yourself to be able to see yourself, and then you have to believe in yourself, because, you know, you have to believe in yourself as an athlete being able to accomplish these goals, but you also have to believe in yourself as a coach that could actually help you to achieve those goals, which is a double ask. And then I think what you can 100% expect is that you are going to question your coaching ideas, like the workouts that you give yourself regularly in the middle of them. In my experience, that happens a lot. So, you have to have like, a lot of belief in what you’re doing, because I think Trevor will will agree with this, is that whether you think you’re going to be successful in a program, or you think you’re not, you’re right. So, not only do you have to believe in your program, you know, you kind of have to believe in yourself and that sometimes that’s difficult to do to like back yourself both as a coach and an athlete.
Trevor Connor 33:31
The thing that I said to her is, is she’s had a really bad experience. I don’t know she overtrain, she definitely went into non-functional overreach. It’s not a great experience to go through, she’s clearly very scared to go back into that experience, and I’ve seen this with athletes where it gets into your head, there is a psychological component, where you look for the signs, and if you’re looking for the signs, generally, you’re going to find them because as we said before, if you want to race and train at a high level, fatigues part of the game, but now you’re uncertain, is this normal training fatigue? Or is this me going back into that experience before and then I’ve seen this with athletes, and it seems like this is a bit of what she’s been doing, you keep changing coaches, you keep changing plans, because you’re scared of going back into that that nonfunctional overreach, and my feedback to her was, at some point, you need to find a coach that you trust enough to say, I’m going to trust the plan. I’m going to move ahead with the plan and when I start having those fears and feeling those burning legs and wondering if I’m overdoing it, I’m going to trust the coach and move forward.
Melanie McQuaid 34:44
And she even said, I feel better after two and a half weeks, and I think both you and I know that, I mean for a significant endurance effort, you know, maybe you’re gonna start seeing the benefits of that three weeks later, you can start to feel better in terms of coordination, and a little bit of turnover in a short period of time, like maybe 10 days or so, but two and a half weeks isn’t really enough time for any training to really marinate, and any kind of performance is going to be like weeks and months in the making. So, she really, I think that the main health metrics that she’s monitoring in terms of her mood and her sleep and her period and energy levels, all those are good, and I’m not sure whether her resting heart rate stuff like that, like there’s a lot of research on HRV where it’s not, it’s not the be all end all, and if we go back to like, our last question, and we were talking about, just how do you feel? And I’ll quote, Shona Halston, again, because obviously, I’m fangirling on her all the time, they were talking about how they were trying to like assign a metric to recoveredness, and the best way to measure recoveredness was a daily questionnaire about like, readiness to train. So, if we go back to our other guy, it was just kind of like, if I feel like I do it, and if I don’t feel like it I don’t. To a certain extent, I have three questions that I ask athletes to ask themselves before they embark on training, because sometimes they’re on different time zones, they can’t like text me like, what is three in the morning for me to ask me if they should train? Like, like, how do you feel health wise? If you have bad symptoms [below] the neck, don’t train. If you have bad symptoms that are [above] the neck, you know, probably modify the day and slow it down. How’s your body? How is your sleep? You know, if you have like multiple days in a row of bad sleep, you probably need to start modifying something or figuring out why you can’t sleep. And then how do you feel from an energy perspective? In terms of like adapting to training, if there’s more than a day or two in the row where you have to like, either modify a session or you’re not up for whatever that session is, then probably the overall loading is incorrect. So, your programming has to change, and generally, if you kind of look through those three questions, you can you can decide on whether or not you’re ready to train without a number, you know, you’re just like, do a scan of your body and decide. I think if I look at most of what’s going on with her, it looks okay, and she might just be so worried about her own prescriptions for coaching that she’s maybe trying to find something that’s not there, and if she just like relaxes and enjoys the process a little bit, maybe some of that stuff might resolve.
[NOTE: In the podcast, Melanie misspoke. Here’s further explanation from Coach Ryan Kohler: “If you have “above the neck” symptoms with NO fever (common cold, runny nose, congestion, minor sore throat), it’s ok to train provided you listen to your body and adjust your exercise accordingly. If you have “below the neck” symptoms (chest congestion, hacking cough, upset stomach), do not train. In addition, if you have a fever (although it is “above the neck”) you should not train in this case as well. Ultimately, letting the body guide you is the best advice I would give – if you have a runny nose, but feel fine and want to go do some exercise, that’s great. Make sure to adjust your intensity and duration to accommodate your body’s need to heal. However, if you have that same runny nose, but lack any motivation to train or have other symptoms, that might be your body trying to tell you something more – I would not support training in that case. It sounds like Melanie may have mixed up the recommendation there. Although she does say “bad” symptoms, in which case if you have “bad” symptoms above the neck, I would not train under those circumstances either. In terms of bad symptoms below the neck, she may have mixed up the upper/lower recommendations – it should be the opposite – no training with below the neck symptoms. The other qualifiers she mentions at the end are critical too – how’s your energy, how’s your sleep, etc? Those are key points whether we’re dealing with above OR below the neck. Hope that helps!”]
Tests That Evaluate Recovery
Trevor Connor 37:34
There’s actually been studies that have shown that the best way to evaluate an athlete’s recovery is these more qualitative metrics, and some good ones, there’s a couple tests out there that you can do, which can really help and some of them only take you a minute. So, one of the most popular is the PALMS, there’s DALDA, which is the daily analysis of life demands of athletes, another good one is Rescue-S. So, those are all three good tests, you can find them online, where you quickly fill them out, and they’ll give you a pretty good assessment of where you’re at.
Does Running Help or Hurt Cycling Performance?
Melanie McQuaid 38:06
Yeah, that’s essentially the DALDA is my like, I just came up with three questions, because honestly, like, that’s as many as I think people will answer at 5am when they’ve got kids go into school, and whatever just run through the list, am I ready? Or not? and off you go, right? I mean, you’re absolutely right, Trevor, like those three tests are have been proven to be the best way to manage like elite programs, too often we try to like, overstep our own natural intuition and perceived, you know, health and sometimes you just got to check in with yourself and go like, Is today the day or not? And some days, you know, you just let it go, or you like, my favorite gift is the Frozen chick, doing her little dance, you know, and like, she’s just like the Let it Go song, and when somebody says, you know, I just couldn’t get the session today I was feeling like crap, I just send over Frozen, let it go, moving on. Who cares? Right, one session lost is better than, you know, a month of injury or you know, maladaptation. Question leads to 1000 different points that we could make, and we could talk endlessly about that type of athlete, that type of situation, but let’s move on to the to the next question. This one comes from McKenzie O’Donnell. He’s up in Edmonton, he writes, “I’m a runner and a cyclist, but I’m not a triathlete. I tend to run more in the winter months and gradually transition more to cycling as the weather gets nicer, but I never stopped running. So, my questions are, is the running helping or hurting my cycling and vice versa? And also, if it helps, how do I most effectively incorporate the two sports into one training plan?” Mel, we’ll start with you, you must have experience in this. I like running and I’m gonna, I’m gonna pile in hiking with the running, because I think that for cyclists who haven’t run, like, I think hiking is a good gateway to running activity, especially in the winter months, I prescribed one of the endurance days to be a hiking day, or a cross country skiing or some kind of cross training, where athletes are more on their feet. I think it’s because, you know, cycling is non-weight bearing, and there are some bone density issues. All of my athletes do some form of strength training as well, but I just there’s benefits beyond the weight room in, you know, being on your feet on the ground. So, I always ask athletes to get off the bike a little bit in the winter. If he’s asking how to incorporate running, for this very reason, I think that there’s a lot of benefit to it, like the bone density issues, and I think just the ability to stretch your hip flexors out and straighten up a little bit, because postural issues for cyclists are a real thing, and you know, between cycling and sitting at a desk, you can have real back issues because you are constantly in a state of shortened hip flexors, and that state of short and hip flexors is makes it very difficult to run, right? You actually have to have like a more neutral pelvis to run safely and effectively on land correctly. So, that’s the biggest problem that most cyclists have when they go and try and run is that they haven’t, like, their pelvis is shifted forward, like they’re sitting in a chair still, when they go to try and run, and that doesn’t allow you to load your ankles correctly, it really leads to landing in front of your body, and that sends a lot of bad force in bad directions and can expose you to injury.
Chris Case 42:01
How does one diagnose such an issue? Is that something that you know, you film yourself running and could send to somebody and say, hey, am I striking the right way? or poorly? Or how does how does somebody diagnose that?
Diagnosing Posture Issues on the Bike
Melanie McQuaid 42:16
100%. Yeah, like, you can, a coach can spot that just run by the camera, and a coach can see it from a mile away, you can probably see it while you’re running, or you just have video evidence, which means you can slow it down and break down each part of your run stride and see. But generally, like the posture that I’m describing, is pretty easy to see, a lot of athletes think that they need to lean because everyone talks about forward lean in running, but what I see most of the time, and most of the time I see, you know, cyclists turn triathletes, or older triathletes that have been told to lean when they run, and what happens is they’re actually just bending at the waist, they’re not leaning at all, and that bend is creating this anterior tilt to their pelvis, and that prevents them from landing correctly with good posture. So yeah, it’s super common, it’s probably the most common thing and it does increase the odds that you’re going to end up having some run related type injury. So, posture is a big part of it, and developing that strength like to, you know, you stand up straight with good posture with your ears, your shoulders, your hips, and your ankles kind of stacked on one another, and then the other is just having the proper mechanics in your feet and ankles, because cycling, you don’t really have to lock your ankle, the way you do witness not even locking, you do lock it to like land, and then you unlock it to roll off your foot. But all of that sort of landing mechanics is a learned thing that I think athletes need to work on, and that’s why plyometrics are so beneficial if you do them correctly, because if you think about it, running is like single legged plyometrics, from one leg to the other for like 30 minutes straight, and anybody that’s plyo knows that it’s pretty high intensity. So, what I usually say for cyclists is as long as you build up to this with like some hiking where you work on that posture and just landing, and then you go from hiking into some walk runs, and then from those walk runs, you extend the amount of running to walking that you do then generally you’re going to build up to some healthy running, which you know, is a nice change from being on your bike. So, as long as you build up to it correctly, like most of the time, what happens is a cyclist with this ginormous engine is like I’m gonna go for a run and then they go run for an hour, and they like blow their Achilles out because they’re not landing correctly, their Achilles is totally not prepared for an hour straight up plyometrics, and then they get hurt, and then it’s no fun, right? Because it hurts.
Physiology of Running as a Cyclist
Chris Case 45:08
Trevor, could you chime in here a bit about the physiology here? if you, yeah, just how did the two relate in terms of physiology? And what benefits can you get from one and the other.
Trevor Connor 45:21
So, I spent a while looking into this a year or two ago, and there, there are two big studies on what’s called the crossover effect. So, goes all the way back to 1994, by Dr. Tanaka, the other one, here is a name that you’d recognize, Dr. Issurin, who’s really been credited with the whole block periodization. He wrote a whole review on this, and basically, what they’re saying is there is a fair amount of transfer, running transfers really well to cycling and also to swimming, cycling transfers not quite as well, but still well to the other two, sports, swimming doesn’t transfer hardly at all to the other two. But they also said these are older studies. So, they talked about central versus peripheral, which is kind of been thrown out, but the basic idea here is what transfers is that aerobic engine that you build. So, if you are going out and doing base miles running, base miles cycling, that endurance that you build, that aerobic engine is gonna transfer to all the other sports very well. What doesn’t transfer is exactly what Melanie is talking about, which is that neuro muscular side, and that’s what you have to be careful of. Mel, to give you a story that you can laugh at, because I experienced this firsthand. My ex-girlfriend was a triathlete, she convinced me to do the Fort Collins triathlon with her a few years back, I had good endurance, good fitness, in the nine months before this triathlon, I went for a two mile run about two weeks before the triathlon just to prepare.
Chris Case 47:02
Trevor Connor 47:03
Sure, sure, I was completely ready.
Melanie McQuaid 47:05
All tuned up.
Trevor Connor 47:06
It just a sprint triathlon, the guy who started out on the run right in front of me, he was a good runner, and it just motivated me. So, I chased them, and so it was 5k, I was going six-minute miles, but for a guy that has that any running was pretty good.
Chris Case 47:24
You were tearing muscles with every movement.
Trevor Connor 47:26
So, I get across the finish line, like oh, that was great, I didn’t know my fitness was so good. So, my girlfriend was in the way behind me, so I sat down on the sidewalk, just past the finish line to wait for her, sat there for about 10-15 minutes, she crosses the finish line, I go to stand up to go and congratulate her and I couldn’t stand up.
Chris Case 47:49
Like you were a marble statue, David sitting there thinking, Oh.
Trevor Connor 47:54
My legs completely locked up, she comes over to me and she’s like, “why didn’t you come over?” And I’m like, “I can’t.”
Eccentric Load of Running
Melanie McQuaid 48:02
Yeah, that’s the eccentric loading that you get from like the impact of running, and that’s what cyclists don’t experience like the direction of force is the same, like if you’re like, pushing down on your pedals, or you’re pushing down into the ground as a runner, the two, the two are really similar, they did this, like interesting study in this mentorship I’m doing at ALTIS, where they talked about like the length of your rectus femoris, it’s like quite a bit shorter when you’re cycling than when you’re running. So, the peak force on the rectus femoris is like different in those two, and so that was an interesting question that I asked them, I’m like what do you do about that with a with a triathlete who has to be able to you know, exert peak force at both lengths, right? Like what do you do what the training for that? But the main difference is that eccentric loading, which will create like significant gains, and requires a certain amount of elasticity and adaptation to be able to absorb it, and what you experienced, Trevor, is that that non-neural engagement with the ground that comes from frequent running, that allows your feet and your Achilles tendon, and all that like musculature and tendons in your lower legs to act like a spring, and so if you don’t run frequently, it’s not good at absorbing that kinetic energy and like, like rebounding off the ground. Instead, you kind of hit the ground and stay on it, which is why you won’t have the same sort of feeling of bounciness so or like, you know, economy that’s exactly what running economy is. It’s this like elasticity in the tendons that comes from, you know, a lot of like appropriate training. So, that’s what’s cyclists generally like underestimate, is like how beneficial it is to have that, and how they have to be really careful because your capacity for pushing a force vertically into the ground as a cyclist is really high. A great story to illustrate this is like Robert Britton, I think won this trail race in Victoria, and anybody who’s been to Victoria B.C., like we’ve got some really like, elite caliber runners here, like really fast people, and obviously Robert Britton is a rock star. He won this 8k, right? So, because he’s just, like, he’s just a lungs, he’s lungs, and like really strong legs and, and of course that AK is trails, so every time you’re running uphill, it becomes more and more like the cycling motion, there’s like less impacted like, it kind of becomes more like you’re cycling, but the steeper the hill. So, this race does include significant amounts of steep hills, but you still had to get down the hill, right? Which requires turnover and leg speed, which would, you know, go more into a runner’s favor. So, I think that’s just a good example in how you know, your cycling engine can make you a good runner, if you prime your springs correctly, to do it efficiently. So, it’s basically building that efficiency just takes some time because ligaments and tendons just take longer to adapt to training.
Chris Case 51:18
I’m like McKenzie, in that I do like to run and I try to fit it in, and I’ve found that I guess at a minimum, I’ll do a run a week, or maybe I’ll kick it out to every 10 days at a minimum, depends on the time of year of course, and that for me, keeps the DOMS away. Is that a good rule of thumb if somebody is looking to keep DOMS away, and get some of this is to do it at a minimum once every week or 10 days? If they go beyond that it might creep back each time they go for a run?
Finding What Works for Each Athlete
Melanie McQuaid 51:56
Well, I think it’s working for you, right? If so, you are saying you are not getting DOMS with that interval. The wisdom with running is that you are kind of better to run a little bit less a little more often, because that neural engagement requires just maintenance. So, I think that if you ran more frequently, you might find you felt more bouncy when you run, but if what you’re doing right now is feeling good, and you’re not getting injured, it’s working, right? So, you don’t need to run any faster. Are you running trails and stuff like that?
Chris Case 52:34
Yeah, yeah. And you know, I’m asking more for the general public is there a rule of thumb of what works generally speaking?
Trevor Connor 52:40
So, there has been research on DOMS, and the most protective thing against DOMS from a centric load is DOMS, meaning you go through it,
Melanie McQuaid 52:45
How long do you run for, Chris?
Chris Case 52:46
Trevor Connor 52:46
Your body repairs from it, and that protects you from future experiences of DOMS. So, this is a good old, you go to the gym, you do some plyometrics, you can’t walk for a couple weeks, but if you keep going very quickly, you don’t have that same experience, right? The protective effect if you get the full protection. So, you do a couple sessions of that sure can last up to six months, believe it or not.
Chris Case 53:04
Like I said, it depends. If I’m just doing it to stave off DOMS on a weekly basis, I might do four or five miles a week, that’s it. In the summer when I get up into the high mountains to do some trail runs, it’s you know, more like 15-20 miles at a time.
Melanie McQuaid 53:40
Chris Case 53:42
I used to be a runner though, so my body knows how to do it. I just put it that way. It seems to know how to do it, and it doesn’t take me a ton to get back to a point where I can do that at a clip.
Melanie McQuaid 53:55
Yeah. And I think that that you are probably an efficient runner, you probably have pretty good form, and are you doing strength training as well?
Chris Case 54:02
Melanie McQuaid 54:03
No. Okay, well, then you’re just a freak. Haven’t we come to this conclusion on this show a million times? Like Chris is a freak. Yeah, I would say like your experience may vary to Chris’s in terms of running 20 miles off of one run a week. I don’t think that most cyclists should choose to run 20 miles when they’ve been running one run a week, but I think one run a week is enough. Like, I know that when I was racing mountain bikes, can read $1 would run one day a week all the time, she ran somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes and she swam two days a week as cross training throughout the world cup season, and she felt like every time she had to get off her bike, you know, in some sections, you’d have to run a little bit that that just helped her for that amount of her training, and just having some variety just kept it fresh for her, and here’s somebody who raced at like she won a World Cup last year or like right before the pandemic at like 45 years old. So, here’s somebody who knows what they’re doing. She incorporated running into her entire mountain bike elite career. So, certainly it can be done at a really high level and, and like you’re finding Chris, like one day a week is kind of enough to like, make it fun and a beneficial part of training.
Trevor Connor 54:06
Oh, he is a freak.
Chris Case 55:14
Well, always a pleasure Mel, thank you for joining us today. We hope that you get to race soon.
Melanie McQuaid 55:22
Yeah, it’s a difficult question saying, hey, are you a pro athlete when you haven’t raced a professional race since 2019? But yeah, I think it’s been a really interesting journey, like just seeing what’s happening in the professional field with this layoff, and also, just, I mean, you guys must also be finding that it’s a real mixed bag as to who came out of the no racing block, like better, having worked on different stuff for a year and as more and more races come back, it’s gonna be exciting to see like, what pandemic training has meant for the fields overall. So, it’s been exciting as a coach, if not challenging.
Trevor Connor 56:05
There’s so many interesting questions including what happens when you take somebody who has been racing Zwift for a year and a half, and you put them back in the real Peloton where you can’t ride through people.
Chris Case 56:18
That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcasts. Be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual. As always, we love your feedback, join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalklabs.com/join and become a part of our education and coaching community. For Coach Trevor Connor, I’m Chris Case thanks for listening.