Middaugh Coaching Corner – Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Applying the concept of “Aggregation of Marginal Gains”

Anyone who has done an XTERRA falls in love with it because of the family atmosphere and it’s fun, laid back approach. I’ve often heard athletes say it’s everything a road triathlon is not and that’s why they love it! It’s gritty and tough, but competitors that battle it out in the race socialize afterwards and are in many cases actually friends.

Even though it’s more laid back and the community supports one another it doesn’t mean that we’re not each looking to squeeze every second out of our race. If you follow cycling at all you know that British cycling has been unstoppable in recent years. They have dominated the cycling medals at the Olympics and have been on top of the Tour de France with Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. This didn’t just happen. When Sir Dave Brailsford became the head of British Cycling in 2002 the team hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in cycling in 76 years. The team broke down everything that goes into cycling and tried to improve each aspect by 1%. Brailsford thought that improvement in each area would lead to aggregated gains in overall cycling performance. This is called the Aggregation of Marginal Gains where you try to improve every single aspect of your sport, business etc. by 1%.

They paid attention to every minute detail that surrounded cycling from which pillow was the best for an athlete to use to which massage gel was the best, and even the best way to wash your hands so athletes don’t get sick and miss training. Now how does this translate to XTERRA, a sport many of us do because it is not made up of people concerned with these types of things? By finding the things in each of our races that will lead to the biggest improvement.

Focus on the big things first

In the case of the British cyclists, they first maximized the gains that could be made in their training programming, nutrition and equipment before they started to look at every other little thing.  Have a little patience and perspective and don’t expect changes overnight.  Shaving a few grams off from bike parts may be the last place you need to look for marginal gains.  Consider what changes will make the biggest difference first.  Athletes are individuals and solutions are not the same for everyone.  Also consider the special needs of XTERRA.  XTERRA racers spend roughly 65% of their total race time on the mountain bike.  In some cases, your limiter is not actually where you can make up the most time in a race. Look over some past race results and see where the biggest time gaps are (and don’t forget to look at transitions).

Find free speed

Biomechanical efficiency in swimming, biking, and running result in faster speeds without more energy cost.  Instead of mindlessly swimming laps, consider private instruction, swim stroke analysis, and engage in purposeful practice.  Mountain biking has a highly technical component so make technical elements part of your training and learn the proper way to rail a corner or navigate rocky terrain.  Improving technical ability is about finding the optimal challenge and not getting on terrain that is way over your head.  Running economy is also a discriminating performance component, so holding proper form, performing running drills and strides, and running frequency can all impact running economy.


Knowing what you should be doing and actually doing it are two different things.  I always say that a training plan looks easier on paper.  Some people can hold themselves accountable, but most could use some outside assistance.  It could be as simple as contacting a training partner, joining a masters swim group, or setting your running shoes next to your alarm clock at night.  Have your training planned out in advance either by yourself or a coach and make sure to log what you actually accomplish.

Track as many metrics and you can

Basic metrics such as distance, time, average speed, and rating of perceived exertion can be very easily tracked.  Other metrics such as heart rate, power, pace, elevation gain, etc. are becoming more and more accessible and easier to analyze.  The relationship between these metrics can tell you a lot about your current form and can be used to quantify training load.  In order to figure out how to improve in a certain area it is important to be able to quantify past and current training loads and fitness markers.

All those little things

Consider all of those little things as a conscious choice that can make that one percent difference on a daily basis.  Start by creating good habits first around your exercise and with nutrition.  Maybe you can’t bank 9 hours of sleep per night, but maybe you can have consistent go-to-sleep and wakeup times that will improve your biorhythms with 7 hours per night.  Become better at time management.  Plan your day in advance and schedule your training like you would a business meeting and make it a priority.  Nail your nutrition before, during and after exercise and approach each workout with a purpose.

It may seem overwhelming or selfish to eek out marginal gains in every area of your life, so keep some perspective.  Focus on changes that also have a positive influence on those around you and not the things that have a negative impact on others.  Some of those things can be reserved for different periods of the year where you really buckle down and do everything right.  That might mean achieving a goal weight during the off-season, or having a limiter focus in the late fall for a 10k pr.  During my most important blocks of heavy training, recovery becomes as important as the work so you can get the most out of your hard work.  Heading into the most important race of the season it means dialing in your equipment, knowing the course, planning your race/nutrition strategy, and arriving at the starting line with the perfect combination of freshness, fitness, and form.

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Middaugh Horse

Middaugh Coaching Corner – A Horse for Every Course

The Maui hills are steep and sustained.  Some may say there are “different horses for different courses,” meaning that some athletes may perform better on a flatter course and another athlete may have the advantage on long, sustained climbs.  But what if you want to be that horse on all courses?

Biking and running uphill depends a lot on your aerobic capacity relative to your body weight.  For cyclists, the discriminating factor for performance is watts per kilogram and for runners it is the relative VO2 max expressed in milliliters per kilogram body mass per minute.  Regardless, it is a pretty simple equation with the rate of work (Power or VO2 max) as the numerator and your body mass as the denominator.

As the key race of the season approaches all athletes want to buckle down, dot their I’s and cross their T’s.  Some self-destructive athletes (myself included) want to train harder, longer, and oh yeah—lose that last 5 lbs.  Achieving all three is problematic. Let me give you an example.

There was a study done a few years ago with three groups of well-trained cyclists.  The first group maintained their normal training volume with no high intensity and followed a low calorie diet.  The second group increased training intensity with high intensity intervals, and did not alter their diet.  The third group did both—increased training intensity and restricted their caloric intake.  Interestingly, the first two groups both increased watts per kilogram but by different methods.  In the first group, watts were unchanged, but body mass had decreased.  The second group increased power output (watts), but body mass stayed the same.  However, the third group actually decreased their watts per kilogram and therefore performance.  Although their body mass was down, their power output plummeted.  They were not able to recover from their workouts and were stuck in a downward spiral, bleeding more watts than the weight loss could make up for.

A word you may have seen in some of our previous articles is maladaptation.  Maladaptation occurs when the stimulus is too strong, too closely spaced, and recovery is inadequate.  Instead of improving performance from training, performance deteriorates.  This is likely to happen if you jump up your training load by a large percentage and then drop caloric intake to very low levels.  The body’s response is an increase in stress hormones, which puts your body in a catabolic state and lowers your immune system.

The take home message is that you need to be smart and practical with how much change you are going to make to either your training program or your diet.  If you plan to bring in more high intensity training, consider backing off a little on the volume to keep your training load in check.  Don’t go extreme with your diet, but make small changes that don’t leave you in a catabolic state and exhausted.

For my final Maui prep, I focus on bringing up the intensity on key workouts, but also backing off more between for proper recovery, and I begin to polarize my training more than other times of the year.  As far as nutrition, I do tighten the screws just a tad, but I double down on my recovery nutrition and the nutrition surrounding my workouts.  I attempt to cut out some of the garbage in my diet with a few simple food rules.  Some of them have to do with specific foods, but most of it is about behavior change, such as sitting down to eat—no eating while standing up, watching TV, or driving.  Usually this results in just a couple pounds of weight loss over the course of 4-6 weeks, while power numbers continue to rise.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t skimp on nutrition before, during, or after exercise.
  2. The quality of your high intensity workouts is most important so don’t begin a session compromised with fatigue or lack of fuel.
  3. Polarize your training sessions more than any other part of the season. Adequately space hard sessions and take easy days a little shorter and/or easier.
  4. Set some simple food rules that are specific to you and easy to achieve. If you have a vice such as soda or snacking on your kids lunch items, cut it out.

Food rules

  1. Weight your calories earlier in the day. Eat a solid breakfast including plenty of low glycemic carbohydrate to fuel your high intensity training.
  2. Nutrient dense foods only around your training (sports drink, gels, recovery drink)
  3. Limit liquid calories outside of exercise (excluding sports drink, recovery drink)
  4. Focus on nutrient dense foods for your main meals, primarily in the evening
  5. Eat foods with high water and fiber content such as fruits, steamed vegetables, salads so you still feel full and eat a similar volume/weight of food. To have a little portion control at dinnertime, try this– eat an apple, drink a glass of water, eat a salad with oil/vinegar dressing and then go for the main course.
  6. No eating past 8:00pm

Josiah Middaugh just won the inaugural XTERRA Pan American Championship and is the reigning XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – Tapering Explained

Tapering is a seemingly simple concept but so many athletes still get it wrong usually due to an insecurity in their fitness. The two primary goals for a taper are 1) disappearance of cumulative fatigue, and 2) maintenance and sharpening of fitness.  A successful taper requires a trust in the process and a reversal of thinking.  Through training, athletes learn that consistency is a key to success and there is a fear of loss of fitness if their routine is disrupted. High training loads may be a prerequisite for peak performance, but the results will not be realized without a proper taper.  Done right, a taper will boost performance to a significantly higher level than otherwise possible.

Keep in mind that different abilities have different training residuals.  For example aerobic endurance has one of the longest training residuals of around 30 days, whereas maximum speed has a training residual of around 5 days (Issurin, 2008).  The explanation is that most of the aerobic endurance adaptations are structural, such as mitochondrial density, capillary density, red blood cell volume and hemoglobin capacity.  Anaerobic adaptations have a shorter training residual because most of the adaptations have to do with anaerobic enzymes and buffering capacity.  Maximum speed has the shortest training residual because it depends on neuromuscular interactions and motor control.  This partially explains why volume is dramatically reduced but intensity and frequency remained mostly unchanged.

There are primarily four different tapering strategies:

1. Step Taper:  This is probably the most common and a typical example would be a two-week taper with a 33% reduction in training volume and intensity the first week, followed by an additional 33% reduction in training volume the second week.  So an athlete training 15 hours per week, would drop to 10 hours and then to 5 hours the week before a big competition.  A step taper could also be a 3 week taper with maybe a 20-25% reduction in training each week.
2. Linear taper:  This is simply a linear, progressive reduction in training load so you would see a gradual reduction in both volume and intensity.
3. Exponential, slow decay taper: With this strategy, there is a greater reduction in training load at the beginning of the taper and then training load almost levels off at around 40-50%.
4. Exponential, fast decay taper:  Compared to the slow decay taper, there is an even greater reduction in training at the beginning of the taper and training load is reduced to 20-30% of normal.  Although tapering is individual, research indicates this to be the most effective tapering strategy.

All tapering strategies can be effective, but there is some research to suggest there may be an ideal tapering strategy.  Bosquet (2007) conducted a meta-analysis on the effects of taper on performance and found the most effective tapering strategy to be a 2 week exponential, fast-decay taper in which training volume is reduced by 41-60% without altering training intensity or frequency.  The primary goal of a taper is the disappearance of fatigue without the negative effects of detraining.  Since volume is drastically reduced, it may also be possible to enhance certain fitness parameters with short residual training effects with high intensity interval and repetition training performed in a rested state with adequate recovery (sharpening).

Tapering is individual

A taper implies that there is a training load that requires tapering from.  For a weekend-warrior type athlete maybe training 4-5 hours per week a taper is probably not necessary.  At the other end of the spectrum, an ultra long distance triathlete at 25+ hours of training per week may benefit from an even longer taper of 3 or even 4 weeks.  For long distance athletes such as marathon runners and ultra-distance athletes, I often place the longest run 4 or even 5 weeks before the race.  For most endurance athletes a one to two week taper is ideal.  Here are more guidelines to help you develop the best tapering strategy for you:

1. The higher the training load, the longer the taper and the greater the reduction in training volume.  Conversely, the lower the training load, the less you need to reduce your training.
2. A longer taper should decay slower than a shorter taper.  If you have a long three week taper, then it can be more linear with a gradual dissipation of fatigue.  If you are planning just a one-week taper, then shut it down quickly to a lower training load.
3. Decrease volume first, but mostly maintain frequency and some intensity.
4. Focus on shorter intervals during a taper with longer recovery.  Intervals can be slightly higher than race intensity, but only if you are used to this type of training.  Race week I usually just have one key session on a Tuesday, which is shorter than normal, and I don’t go all out.
5. Avoid the temptation to over-cook your final high intensity workouts since you are feeling fresh and can likely swim, bike, or run personal bests during the final week.  Leave the Strava records alone.  Also consider the demands of your race and it may be unnecessary to perform high intensity repetition work.
6. Have confidence in the process and expect some feelings of guilt. Just because your training load is low, doesn’t mean you didn’t earn your next meal.  Back off your type A personality for just a short time.
7. Don’t overcompensate by restricting your diet.  Muscle and liver glycogen (carbohydrate) stores need to be at a maximum and hydration optimal.  Since glycogen is stored with water, expect a small amount of weight gain–this is a good thing.  Although you might feel like it, you won’t get fat in your final week of tapering.
8. Decreasing fatigue is the most important part of a taper, so any last-ditch effort to boost your fitness will likely backfire.  When in doubt, leave it out.

The biggest pitfall I see is the sabotage, which usually occurs about a week out from the race.  Again, it is the lack of confidence and the unnecessary urge to complete one final confidence-building workout.  Save it for the race.  For XTERRA racing, the other challenge is deciding how much pre-riding is necessary.  Riding 2 hours at moderate to somewhat high intensity one or two days before the race is a bad idea.  Consider riding just a portion of the course or not at all.  Another strategy is to be very well rested before you arrive so a pre-ride of the course will be easier to recover from.  I often place a complete day off 2 or 3 days out from the race, usually coinciding with travel.


The final piece to get you feeling fresh on race day is a short potentiation workout, often referred to as “openers”.  If you are well rested, but it has been a while since any high intensity training, it may be beneficial to potentiate the muscles with a few short intervals on the bike the day before the race.  A typical workout would be 3-4 reps of 1-2 minutes at goal race intensity in the middle of a 30 to 40 minute ride.  Some suggest that a potentiation workout should be reserved for elite athletes, but if you have trouble with heavy legs on race day, then it would be worth trying first before a low priority race.  For it to be effective, you need to be rested and don’t go all out.  If you have some fatigue from a pre-ride the previous day, then skip the potentiation reps.

For more great tips on how to nail your taper week, check out 4-time World Champion Melanie McQuaid’s latest blog post at http://racergirl.com

Final thought

“Rest is good after the work is done” — Danish proverb

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion.  He has left a knee cap in Alabama, a tooth in Utah, and an appendix in Mexico … and he dances for good causes!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Bosquet, L., Montpetit, J., Arvisais, D., & Mujika, I. (2007).  Effects of tapering on performance:  A meta-analysis.  Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(8), 1358-1367.

Issurin, V. (2008).  Block periodization versus traditional training theory:  A review.  Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness, 48(1), 65-75.

Shepley, B, MacDougall, JD, Cipriano, N, Sutton JR, Tarnopolsky, MA, Coates, G (1992).  Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 72(2), 706-711.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – The Problem with Mixed Training

The Problem with Multi-Targeted, Mixed Training

Juggling three sports is not easy.  For the untrained athlete, any type of training can have cross-over benefits, but at the highest level other training modes have little transfer and in some cases even conflicting adaptations.

A single sport athlete can maximize training stimuli with a reasonable training load.  For example, an elite distance runner might consistently run 80+ miles per week, that might only be 9-10 hours per week.  They may also be able to hit nearly all intensity zones in one week with a long run, tempo run, threshold intervals and/or VO2 max intervals.  If a triathlete tried to do the same across all three disciplines, the training load would be through the roof and the frequency of high intensity sessions wouldn’t allow for sufficient recovery, resulting in maladaptation, overtraining, or injury.

It is not practical for a triathlete to swim like a swimmer, bike like a cyclist, and run like a runner due to the high training load.  There may be some endurance freaks that can match the volume, but not the quality. To work on all fitness components simultaneously will spread you too thin.  So stop trying.  Limit your focus and direct the workload at one or two fitness components at a time.  Multi-targeted, mixed training does not produce enough stimulus or workload targeted at a single specific fitness component to make a positive change.

The solution is to limit the number of training targets within one week and within a single training session to maximize adaptation.  It means the opposite of the random training methods that are so appealing to the masses.  It means structure.  On paper, the workouts have a simple pattern and repetition.  If there is an ideal interval length for a specific adaptation, then work that interval length for the entire session.  Remember, variety is for the weak minded.  The goal is the most effective and efficient training strategy, not something to keep you interested.

With today’s short attention spans and the overwhelming amount of training information available on the internet, it is tempting to mix it all together into one stinky soup I call the “kitchen sink” workout.  It might be sold as “muscle confusion,” the “WOD,” or just a way to keep an athlete interested.  This is the type of workout that attempts to hit every component of fitness on one workout.  It is guaranteed to make you tired and you will feel like you accomplished something, but it did nothing to improve any fitness component related to triathlon.  Properly structured training might not be as attractive, but it is more efficient and effective.

Here are a few guidelines to keep you focused

  • Build endurance with steady-state aerobic training
  • Focus on one or two fitness components per week
  • Don’t mix together different types of high intensity intervals into one “kitchen sink” session
  • Keep threshold sessions focused on threshold intensity
  • Keep shorter interval workouts focused on your VO2 max intensity
  • Workouts should be simple enough to memorize easily
  • Sequence weeks of training or blocks of training with purpose
  • Occasionally forget all of these guidelines and blast a good group ride

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion.  He has left a knee cap in Alabama, a tooth in Utah, and an appendix in Mexico … and he dances for good causes!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – Give it a Rest!


(Clearly this week’s column was written by Yaro, as Josiah travels the globe in pursuit of adventure and Pan Am title).

At this point in your racing season you have probably done nearly half of your season’s races. Hopefully, you are right on track to reach your goals and crush your “A” race in a month or two. Maybe you are not exactly where you want to be and have struggled in some early races. Regardless, it might be time to consider a midseason break.

The physical and mental strain of consistent training can take its toll on you and your support group. Time to reward them before the big push to your championship race.  Too many times athletes feel the pressure to keep up the intensity to outdo their competition. They fear they will lose valuable ground, but this simply is not the case. The midseason break is just as important for mental recovery as it is for physical. Your support team could use it too!

So when do you take your break and how long should it be? We recommend taking a solid week, but no longer than two. Plan it out the same time you plan out your race schedule. Your schedule probably includes a peak race around the midseason mark. Plan your break right after this race.

Breaking your season into two sections like this makes it easier to push through and concentrate on reaching your season goals. The rest week also allows you to reevaluate the first half of the season and revise your plan for the second half based on your performances thus far. Plan a meeting with your coach or support team for the end of the break and make sure you are all on the same page as you prepare for the last few months of your season.

A rest week does not mean that you don’t do anything. It means you don’t do anything structured. This is a great time for social workouts. Triathletes and endurance athletes in general often end up on an island doing many of their workouts on their own. Your planned rest week is a great time to throw out structure, zone goals, and just enjoy the activities you do. Find your friends that would love to workout with you, but can’t quite hang and make an effort to ride, run or swim at their pace. It’s amazing how well you will feel both physically and mentally after a week with no structure and a little more social contact.

You want to relax and stay active. Some extra yoga, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking are great because they are low impact and mimic many of the movements you use in triathlon. In general, try not to do any one discipline more than twice and limit each to an hour or less. There are definitely some exceptions. A low intensity cruiser ride with your kids or significant other that lasts over 60 minutes is fine. Something like a hike with friends that is well over an hour can be fine too.

The rest week however is not time to try more intense activities that could cause injury and sabotage the rest of your season. It is not the best time to pick up crossfit or decide to jump in the local three on three basketball tournament. Your jump shot can wait! These are great activities, but not during your midseason break, and definitely not at this point in your season with your main goals still in front of you.

It’s not too late. Take a look at your schedule, talk to your coach and support team. Is it time for a midseason break?

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion, and he dances for good causes!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Middaugh Coaching Corner: Go Jump in a Lake!

Note: Josiah’s brother Yaro wrote this week’s training tip…

You diligently hit the pool every Monday, Wednesday and Friday all winter. You even moved up in your masters group to a faster lane. Yet in your first few XTERRAs this season you’re in nearly the same position out of the water. At this point in the summer that local body of water near your house is starting to warm up to a comfortable temperature for open water swimming. Open water may just be the thing you need to take your swim to the next level. But what should you do out there? Below are a few suggestions to get you rolling:

You would never show up to the pool if you knew you only 10-20 minutes to swim. However, a lot can be accomplished in a 10-20 minute continuous swim. My best swimming has happened when I stopped swimming in the pool and started swimming all open water. Instead of swimming 2-3 times a week for 60 minutes, I started swimming 3-4 times a week for only 10-40 minutes at a time. I just made sure that all the time I had was spent actually swimming. I primarily did tempo swims, but worked very hard to increase my cadence. For many people that are relatively new to swimming and do not do flip turns the pool wall acts like a crutch. It is used for extra rest and totally breaks the rhythm of your swim.

Every time you go to the pool the conditions are nearly the same. Sometimes it’s a little cold or too warm, but that’s it. On race day, you never know what the conditions will be like so make sure you swim open water in all conditions as well. Make sure it’s safe of course, but don’t be afraid of a little chop! Being comfortable in all conditions will pay off and might just allow you to make the front pack when others are struggling.

The more people you can get out there with you the better. First of all, it’s just safer to swim with a group. Swimming with others also pushes you to swim harder and practice race simulations. Drafting can improve your 1500-meter swim time by as much as 60-90 seconds. Practice drafting off others, have others swim behind you and hit your feet with every stroke, or try to pass someone and jump to the next group.

Lifelong swimmers are probably mumbling expletives under their breath right now. Wailing on the water doesn’t mean make a huge splash as it implies. It really refers to increasing your cadence. That summer I started to improve my swim I did something I liked to call wailing on the water. When I knew I only had 10-20 minutes, which was most of the time, I started swimming nearly as hard as I could for as long as I could. I started with 50 strokes (I would only count 1 arm because it was too hard to keep track of two when swimming at my max : ) As soon as I could no longer keep up the effort and cadence I would swim easy for about 20 strokes and try to do it again. I would repeat this 3-6 times depending on how much time I had and how tired I was. Each week try to add 10 strokes or more. I got so that I was doing around 400+ strokes for each interval, but I kept my rest interval the same. My cadence went up which is important in open water swimming because it helps keep your momentum especially in choppy water or when swimming against the current. Typically, the choppier the water the faster your cadence needs to be. Pool only swimmers often fail to make this adjustment in open water. This workout totally sucks, but has huge benefits, and it looks pretty funny for spectators.

The beginning of each race can determine whether or not you swim with the lead pack or make a pack at all. The first 200 meters could determine whether or not you make the podium in your age group or not. You need to practice this often and be as race specific as you can. Is your next big race a water or beach start? You need to know and practice. If you have an open water group, do the starts together to even better simulate the start of your race. Again, I often count strokes or use buoys or landmarks. I will do 50-100 strokes nearly all out, 50-100 at race pace and then swim easy back before I start my next start. It’s a lot easier to use buoys or landmarks if you are with a group.

Triathlon swims can be unpredictable and a little bit crazy. The last thing you want to do is stop mid swim and lose contact with your pack, and minutes to your competition. Open water swims offer the closest simulation to this. I encourage athletes to swim through uncomfortable situations. If you get battered by a wave, take in a huge drink, your goggles fog up, or you get kicked try to swim through it instead of stopping to gather yourself. If I get slammed by a wave and take in a bunch of water, I try to actually swim harder during my training swim and see if I can work my way through it. I use it as an opportunity to simulate a race day situation that you often find yourself in, but is difficult to prepare for.

You want to be comfortable in your wetsuit, but you do NOT want to do all of your open water swims in your wetsuit. Wetsuits are buoyant and help hide flaws in your body position. They also pretty much alleviate the need to kick. Swimming in open water without a wetsuit will make you a much stronger swimmer and improve your body position.

If you swim at the same lake, beach, or reservoir start getting an idea of how long it takes you swim between certain landmarks and know their distances. Obviously current and chop can affect your times, but you can start to use the distances for workouts. A huge part of open water swimming is sighting. During every workout you should pick one or more landmarks to sight. When race day comes sighting will be a piece of cake!

I know plenty of people that don’t open water swim because they are uncomfortable swimming by themselves. If this is the case, go to your local swimming hole and swim back and forth between the swim buoys. Time yourself going the length of them and practice making turns around the buoys. Buoys are great for intervals. You can swim the length, down and back or do pyramids.

Now that I’ve told you to make yourself uncomfortable and swim in adverse conditions I also want to make sure that you always think about safety. Below are a few recommendations to help make sure you’re safe out there:

– Swim with a group when possible.
– Have someone in a kayak or on a paddle board.
– Make sure someone has a cell phone in kayak or on beach.
– If there are lifeguards let them know you are swimming.
– Use a swim buoy, especially if you are swimming alone.
– Wear a bright swim cap.
– Make sure someone knows exactly where you are swimming and when you plan to return.
– Don’t swim in areas with high boat traffic.
– If you are by yourself, swim along the shore, or use swim area buoys and go back and forth.

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion, and he dances for good causes!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro (drinking the pickle juice) also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.

BC swim

Middaugh Coaching Corner – Racing at Altitude

Beginning in my undergraduate studies, the physiological responses to training and racing at altitude have always fascinated me. In June of 2000 my wife and I moved to Vail, Colorado for for the summer to experience it first hand. That summer I also jumped in my first XTERRA in Keystone, with the swim above 9000 ft and the bike course peaking out above 11,000 ft. Since then I have seen the Mountain Championship won by both altitude dwellers and nonaltitude dwellers. Mountain courses are fitness courses and I concluded early on that the fittest athletes tend to do well at sea level, altitude and everything in between. Let’s take a look at what the research says, but no need to overanalyze.

Then I will offer some practical advice that everyone can benefit from especially for those arriving from lower elevations. The exercise physiology world took interest in altitude just prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, an event contested at about 7,350 feet above sea level. Coincidentally, the swim for the Beaver Creek XTERRA is at almost the exact same elevation. By scientific standards this is still considered a moderate altitude. Many of the studies since the 1968 Olympics focused on training at altitude as a method to improve sea level performance, but we want to examine what
happens when the race is held at altitude.

Because the partial pressure of oxygen is lower at higher altitudes, output in any endurance event relying on sustained oxygen uptake will be lower compared to sea level, even for those who live at altitude. Adaptation to altitude makes up for a percentage of this difference but not all, and adaptation occurs in three stages, acute, subacute, and chronic. Acute adaptation occurs during the first 72 hours, chronic adaptation can take 3 weeks or more. Subacute is the period between 72 hours and 3+ weeks.

Think of altitude as an additional stress on the body, especially during the acute phase. To make up for the lack of oxygen, heart rate and ventilation rate go up and the body temporarily dehydrates itself. Below are some strategies for racing at altitude

1. Give yourself 4 days or more, or arrive just before the event. The negative effects of altitude exposure typically peak around day 3 and then start to get better from there. One strategy is to give yourself some time to get through the acute phase and start to make some of the altitude adaptations. During the first 3 days, take it easy since there is already additional stress on the body. Six days or more would be even better since you will start to make some longer lasting adaptations.

The other strategy is to arrive just before the event within 24 hours. This can be a little riskier since you have the stress of travel to deal with, but the theory is that you race before the negative effects of altitude exposure have time to manifest. I have seen this work with experienced athletes and it helps to know what to expect. If you can learn to pace for the altitude race and deal with the higher breathing rates then it can be an effective strategy.

2. Stay hydrated. During your initial days at higher altitude, your body tries to compensate for less red blood cells by lowering your blood plasma. Additionally, it is very dry at high altitudes so there is more insensible water loss just from breathing. Coupled with the higher respiration rates, you can lose larger amounts of water even without exercising.

3. Pace yourself. This is probably the most important advice. For an altitude race there is a much higher price to pay for going into oxygen debt early in the race. In the swim try to settle into your pace earlier than normal and breathe often. Since the bike course starts with a 5 mile climb with plenty of passing room, there is no need to peg the first 3 minutes. Again, try to settle in early and consider the entirety of the race. Your goal is your highest average pace for the entire event, not just the first mile. You may feel like there is a governor set on how hard you can push. Continue to assess your breathing compared to your perceived effort. You may find you are breathing harder than normal, but you actually feel ok and can sustain the faster
ventilation rate.

4. Arrive fit, but rested. As I mentioned earlier, the fittest athletes at sea level tend to be the fittest athletes at altitude and everything in between. If, however, you arrive in a deep hole of fatigue, then hammer your first day at altitude, it might be more of a setback.

5. Train for the climbs. You may not be able to simulate the altitude, but maybe you can simulate some of the climbing. Seek out the hills for your longer workouts and key sessions. Become a climber. Hills workouts can be a good boost to your VO2 max. Also keep in mind that climbing performance on the bike and run inversely correlate with body weight, so try not to carry anything extra up those climbs.

6. Pay closer attention to your raceday nutrition. Racing at altitude relies more on carbohydrate, especially during the acute and subacute phases of adaptation. Make sure to consistently fuel and hydrate. The big climbing courses like Beaver Creek, Ogden, and Maui, are energetically very demanding courses and require nailing the nutrition. Plan your nutrition strategy just like you plan your transitions or your race strategy and go over it before the race.

So there you go, now nobody has an excuse to avoid an altitude race. The course in Beaver Creek shares the most similarities with the XTERRA USA Championship in Ogden both in its course profile and the environment so it is the best preparation you can do.

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion, and he dances for good causes!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro (drinking the pickle juice) also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.

Middaugh Coaching

Middaugh Coaching Corner – Don’t Cramp My Style!


Most of us have experienced cramps at one point or another during a race. Sometimes they go away right away and other times they can be so debilitating that you have to stand in place until they subside or drop out of the race completely. Cramps can derail a race and leave you extremely frustrated. Research is all over the place as to what exactly causes cramping and what you can do to alleviate them and the cause is likely multifactorial. The cure may be different for each athlete as well. We have put together some widely recognized causes of cramping:

  1. Lack of Fitness (Fatigue-induced abnormality of neuromuscular control)

This seems obvious, but lack of fitness often leads to cramping if you push too hard for too long. So get in better shape!  Consider the specific race demands that you will encounter including intensity, duration, terrain, and environment. Do more intervals, and simulate race conditions. If your race has 3,000 feet of climbing and you don’t try to simulate this in your training, you can expect to cramp during that race, believe me I’ve done it. If your preparation is lacking, it’s that much more important to pace yourself during your race and know your limitations. Often athletes race much harder than they do during training. If your race effort is nothing like your training you are much more likely to cramp.

  1. Lack of Fluids and Electrolytes

Every athlete has been told that in order to avoid cramps they need to stay hydrated and ingest electrolytes. Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium help produce nerve impulses which cause your muscles to contract. It makes sense that if electrolytes are depleted your muscles might be more likely to cramp however there is not a lot of research that proves that lack of fluids and electrolytes causes cramping, but they may contribute to it. So what does this mean? Well, each XTERRA can be long and grueling. Over the course of 2-4 hours you need electrolytes and water for optimal performance. We know that a 2% loss in total body water can cause a significant drop in performance. For this reason, even if hydration and electrolytes are not the cause of cramps, still pay close attention to hydration and electrolyte protocols for optimal performance and to help decrease the likelihood of cramping.

  1. Nutrition

Inadequate carbohydrate stores has long been thought to be a potential reason for muscle cramps as well. It makes sense that over worked muscles may cramp as their power source is depleted. Again, research does not seem to support lack of carbohydrates alone as the cause of cramping, but your muscles need fuel to perform so you still want to make sure that you properly fuel during your race. XTERRA races are intense and rely primarily on carbohydrate stores in the muscles and liver, which are limited. Carbohydrate cannot be replenished at the rate it can be burned, so the goal is to delay the depletion of your glycogen stores just long enough to get across the finish line.

  1. Neurological

Ever heard of taking pickle juice for cramping? Many of you have probably tried it yourself and maybe you even found it to work. Many attribute this to the high levels of sodium in the pickle juice, but there is more and more research showing that fatigue causes increased neuron activity causing muscles to contract involuntarily. Pickle juice may calm these hyper-excitable motoneurons and limit cramp duration. The bottom line is that a fatigued muscle is more likely to cramp. Also, muscles that cross more than one joint are more likely to cramp when they get into a shortened position. Examples of this would be the gastrocnemius in the calf, the hamstrings, and the rectus femoris in the quads.  Lengthening that muscle will relieve the cramp.

Take Aways:

Lack of electrolytes, fluids and carbohydrates alone do not seem to be the cause of cramps, but they may contribute to them. They do however impact performance so still adhere to fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolyte protocols. Remember the hotter it is the more fluids and electrolytes you need!

Most cramping seems to occur when fatigued or during races when the intensity is higher or the duration is longer than your body is used to. You need to be ready for race intensity and duration. Don’t skip your long runs, and maintain a consistent strength routine that includes plyometrics. Both will help limit fatigue during racing. You need to train specifically for your race and do intervals that mimic the unique demands it requires. I know I’m not the only one that has cramped up while trying to jump over a boulder or duck under a downed tree. XTERRA races require you to ride and run up and down steep slopes, turn on even surfaces, and climb, jump and duck under obstacles. These are things that you need to keep in mind in training. You might need to use a treadmill to mimic climbing etc. but also take into account the dynamic demands of mountain biking and trail running.  Don’t just practice obstacles while you are fresh! A neurological trick you can try is including strides or form drills at the end of a fatiguing run.  Performing some light plyometric training and dynamic exercises can increase neuromuscular control to help with prevention.

Keep in mind that a proper taper can increase performance by up to 2-3%. This increase in performance can stress the body in a way it was not accustomed to in training so make sure that your training includes intervals above race pace.  Some repetition work during a taper period can prepare you for these demands without adding fatigue.

If you have something that you have been doing to prevent cramping and it seems to be working, keep doing it! Causes can be individual and may even have a genetic component.

Be skeptical but open minded when someone tells you they have a solution to your exercise-induced muscle cramps. Unfortunately, it can be hard to prove a negative, so if you take a product and don’t get a cramp, it doesn’t necessarily mean that product prevents muscle cramps. Take some universal precautions starting with your training and make sure you are ready for the duration and intensity your race will demand.

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion, just won the Ultimate Mountain Challenge in his hometown for the 10th straight year, and he dances for good cause!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro (drinking the pickle juice) also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – Threshold Training

For the past dozen years, my early season XTERRA calendar has always included courses with lots of twists and turns, but limited elevation gain or sustained climbing (think Alabama and Richmond). The second half of the season shifts to mountainous courses with long sustained climbs on the bike and the run.  XTERRA Beaver Creek, the XTERRA USA Championship in Ogden, and the XTERRA World Championship in Maui all fit this mold.  Success in these events depends on your ability to climb continuously.  Specifically, your output relative to your body weight at anaerobic threshold is the discriminating factor.  The answer to increasing your performance is to raise your output (power, speed, VO2) at anaerobic threshold.

Threshold training is very demanding physically and psychologically. Compared to VO2 max interval training, the interval lengths are much longer. Most athletes avoid this type of training even though a race demands it.  Few have the focus and attention span to suffer in the most effective way.

There was an interesting study that examined the physiological effects of different interval lengths. There were three well-trained groups, each performing two quality sessions per week for 7 weeks.  The hard workout for group 1 was 4 x 4 min at maximal tolerable intensity. Group 2 performed 4 x 8 min at maximal tolerable intensity. Group 3 performed 4 x 16 min at maximal tolerable intensity. As the interval length went up, naturally the average intensity was lower.  I would classify group 1 as VO2 max intervals, group 2 performed threshold Intervals, and group 3 performed tempo bouts. This was by no means the perfect study, but the group that increased all physiological parameters of performance more than the others was group 2, which performed the 4 x 8 minutes. To achieve the proper peripheral adaptations, the bouts need to be well paced, performed at a steady-state intensity very close to anaerobic threshold, and sustained for a period of time.  Rest and repeat as long as quality can be maintained.

How to perform a threshold workout

Let’s simplify. Ideal interval lengths for threshold training should range from 6-12 minutes. Recovery time between bouts should be about 50% of the work, so for an 8 minute effort, use 4 minutes for recovery. Intensity for cycling should be right around your threshold power or around your 1-hour race intensity. For runners you can use your 10k race intensity or slightly slower as a starting point.  Total volume of hard work should be 30-40 minutes. So 5 x 6 minutes gets you to 30 minutes of total work, or 4 x 10 minutes puts you at 40 minutes. The goal is repeatability so don’t confuse yourself with too much variation. You want to be able to see if you can maintain the same power, or cover the same distance at a steady pace each time.  Remember that variety is for the weak minded J.

Make it specific

If you are lucky enough to live in the mountains, you can perform these intervals uphill, repeating the same climb each time to ensure the quality and recovering on the downhill.  I find I get more consistent power and heart rate if the climb is smooth and a steady grade. On the CompuTrainer, you can block up your front wheel and use smaller gears at threshold power to simulate climbing.

For running you can either find a long hill or use the treadmill with incline. For 10% grade try backing off the speed 2.5-3 mph from your flat running pace. To be prepared for the speed of the downhills, you can perform some of the intervals at uphill and some flat.

Fine points

– Typically I usually use slightly shorter interval lengths for running and less total volume compared to cycling.

– It is important to evenly pace each effort to achieve a steady state. If you use heart rate alone, allow it to ramp throughout each bout.

– Try holding back a bit on your first effort, make a line in the dirt, and see if you can repeat or surpass the mark each time.

– For advanced athletes you can try going beyond the 40-minute mark on the bike as long as power can be maintained. Another advanced option is to perform 30-40 minutes of hard work on the bike, followed by 15-20 minutes of hard work running.

– To make a measurable change, it works best to focus on threshold workouts for a block of training with 2 or 3 of these types of workouts per week.  Keep total minutes of threshold training under 20% of your total training volume.

Intuitively threshold training makes sense.  Essentially you are asking yourself to train at intensities similar to what you will experience in a race. After a solid block of threshold training I find that even if threshold power does not increase much, I am able to sustain that power longer with less fade late in a race. Threshold training has been my bread and butter for many years and I hope it works for you.


Example: Cycling workout 4 x 9 min at 100% threshold power. Notice the steady ramp in heart rate as power stays the same.

Seiler, S. (2013). Adaptations to aerobic interval training: Interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 23(1), 74-83.


Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Learn more about the two and their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.