Middaugh Coaching Corner – Interval Training

For years interval training has been considered the most potent form of training for an endurance athlete. Thanks to early running legends such as Paavo Nurmi, the flying Finn, and Emil Zatopek, the Czechoslovakian locomotive.  They weren’t the first to implement interval training, but their straightforward approaches shaped modern distance running. Put simply, in order to race fast, you need to train fast.

In modern times, interval training is a fundamental way to train endurance performance. I overheard my 10 year-old telling his brother, “the best way to get faster is to do intervals, that’s what my gym teacher said.”  For the general public, any intervals will do, but for the highly trained endurance athlete we need to get a little more scientific.

The basic premise of interval training is that you are able to swim, bike, or run at a higher intensity if your training is intermittent versus continuous. A 5k runner, for example, could head out the door and cover 3.1 miles as fast as possible a couple times a week, but would have a hard time holding their goal pace for much more than one mile. Instead, if the training was broken into half mile intervals, a race-pace could be achieved with every 800 meter bout as long as recovery was adequate.  With each repeated bout there is a cumulative effect, up to a certain point, to stimulate adaptation. Beyond a certain point, maladaptation can occur.

Types of Intervals

In an effort to simplify we will focus our discussion on the most potent type of intervals known as VO2 max intervals. VO2 max is defined as an individual’s highest rate of oxygen consumption (milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute). A common misconception is that interval training is strictly anaerobic. These types of intervals do have a big anaerobic component, but by definition have you operating near your peak oxygen consumption, which is the key.  Most athletes can work at VO2 max for only about 5 to 9 minutes, so intervals at VO2 max need to be shorter than that.  If the interval is too short, then the anaerobic contribution is big, but there is not enough time to actually get to VO2 max. Personally I like 2-3 minutes ON with about equal recovery.

Pacing Strategy

Pacing is critical. Suppose you are running those 800 meter bouts and you start out by sprinting the first 200 meters and then have a gradual slow-down for the next 600 meters.  Your average pace might be on target, but you have failed to reach VO2 max since you started with this huge anaerobic effort and then settled into a pace slower than your VO2 max intensity.

There is something called a slow-component to VO2 max.  This means that for any pace above lactate threshold, you will eventually reach VO2 max if the exercise is continued. So you do want to go fast, but to spend the most amount of time near VO2 max, you want a pace you can sustain for 2-3 minutes. If performed correctly your oxygen consumption will approach VO2 max about half-way through each hard effort.  So if your workout is 6 x 2.5 minutes, you might in reality only spend a total of 7.5 minutes at VO2 max, which is fine.  If performed poorly you may only spend a few seconds of each interval at VO2 max or none at all.


Poor pacing strategy with high power output at the start of each bout and power dropping on each bout. Also note the furthest distance achieved on the first effort.


Better pacing strategy here. In this case, power within each bout was very consistent, but there was still a drop off in power for the last 3 bouts.


Power fairly consistent throughout hard efforts.   Notice peak heart rate is not achieved until the 6th bout. Different athletes, different software.

Work:Rest Ratios

An ideal range for work portion is about 1.5 to 4 minutes. We like the 2-3 minute range the best with a few exceptions. Work to rest ratios are usually around 1:1.  The rest interval can be adjusted to increase or decrease the intensity of the workout. If you are having a hard time keeping pace, try adding 30 seconds rest. If you are completing the workout with energy to spare, try 30 seconds less rest the next time out.

How Intense?

Pace or power are your best guides for this type of training. Heart rate lags so far behind that it is not the best indicator and you don’t want to try to spike your heart rate to start each effort.

If you have power on the bike, I like to use 110% FTP for 3 minute bouts, and 115% FTP for 2 minute bouts.  To find Functional Threshold power on the bike go here (http://middaughcoaching.com/heart-rate-and-power-training-zones/).

For running, a 5k race pace or slightly faster will get you there. A 15 minute 5k runner can just use their 5k pace, but a 25 minute 5k runner might need to increase the pace slightly. If you use our spreadsheet, then use your pace for the top of zone 4, beginning of zone 5. (http://middaughcoaching.com/running-heart-rate-and-pace-training-zones/)

If you are performing intervals uphill and don’t have power or pace to guide you, try this approach. Warm up to the base of consistent climb.   On your first bout, hold back a fraction and note your distance at 1 minute and 2 minutes. Make a mark in the dirt.  Recover on the downhill and repeat the same section of the hill attempting to at least reach the same finishing mark or go slightly further. Try to do this without going any further for that first minute.

How Much?

I mentioned earlier that this is the most potent form of training. So your goal is to be able to maintain the quality for the entire workout. For most people this means 15-21 minutes of total hard work.  So that is 8-10 bouts of 2 minutes, or 5-7 bouts of 3 minutes. Keep it simple.   Shoot for a very similar intensity every time and if you start to slow down you have done too much.

How Often?

A little bit can go a long way. I try to space out this type of training more than any other.  For most people that means two quality sessions per week with one on the bike and one on the run.   Training becomes more polarized during a VO2 max cycle with recovery and endurance workouts separating VO2 max bouts.  Total training volume is reduced and avoid excessively long workouts during this time.

Soon Ripe, Soon Rotten

With this type of training, most people will plateau in about 6 weeks.  I like to sprinkle in this type of training as key races are approaching and save heavy blocks of VO2 max interval training for the most important races of the season.

Middaugh Coaching Corner – Undulating Your Training

A few years ago I wrote a research paper titled “Achieving Expertise in Triathlon.”  While researching, I came across a few good nuggets that I think can apply to anyone who exercises.  One key difference between elites and non-elites, was that elites tend to undulate their training more.  I see two main mistakes I think many people can relate to.  One mistake is to do the exact same routine each week with little change in volume or intensity, which is great for maintenance, but not good for making a positive change.  The other mistake is to try to progress your training linearly.  That approach is too artificial and eventually leads to maladaptation because it is not sustainable and that is not how organisms adapt.  Non-linear periodization is an important component to long-term triathlon success.

A notion we all need to dispose of is that “if a little is good, then more must be better.”  When I council athletes after a poor performance, their solution is almost always to train more and harder, when the reality might be that they did plenty of training but not enough recovery to realize their abilities.

To understand this, we need to go back to the basics on how an organism adapts to stress, called the General Adaptation Syndrome. Exercise stresses many of the body’s systems and when the stimulus is the proper dose and at the proper frequency, super-compensation can result. The three-stage response to training includes shock, adaptation, and staleness. It is during the recovery cycles that the body achieves a higher level of homeostasis and a higher level of performance. When heavy training is carried out week after week, there is a summation of the training stimulus that creates a large amount of cumulative fatigue and can lead to staleness. If you never back it off from that linear progression, there will never be a realization of improved performance.

Most people do a pretty good job of undulating training within a week and they understand the concept of easy days and hard days. But if every week looks the same, then how can gains be made beyond a certain plateau?

The solution is to undulate your training regularly within mesocycles.  A microcycle can be thought of as a single week of training and a block of several weeks is considered a mesocycle. Many athletes undulate training unintentionally and unsuccessfully with unplanned setbacks due to overtraining, injury, or life circumstances.  A better, more effective, and more proactive approach is to plan a lighter week of training at least once a month if not more frequently.  Plan to train purposefully for a 2 or 3-week block, and then drop your training volume by 30-50% for one week.  Think of it as a short time period to let some training adaptations set in.  You will refresh your body and mind for the next cycle of training.  This principle applies to both strength/power athletes and endurance athletes.  Undulation of training should occur from day to day with harder and easier days, but it should also occur with short, restorative cycles every few weeks.  Often this can be timed with a competition or a field test occurring at the end of one of these recovery weeks.

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 Swim

Middaugh Coaching Corner – Early Season Racing

With XTERRA World Champion Josiah Middaugh fresh off a runner-up showing at the XTERRA Pan America Tour season-opener in Costa Rica on Sunday, it seems an appropriate time to talk about why jumping into a race early in the season is a good idea.  To give the champ a break as he travels from CR to Argentina in preparation for stop No. 2 on the PanAm Tour, his brother Yaro brings us this week’s column…

Nine Reasons to Sign Up for an Early Season Race…or Two

Well, it’s that time of year when races are starting to pop up on the calendar. You’re coming off a solid winter of training or maybe you’re not. Either way, you have a rough idea of where your fitness is, and you have clearly mapped out your “A” races for the season. So why would you consider doing an early season race that you’re not specifically training for? We have come up with nine reasons to jump in some early season races:

  1. Test fitness: Testing fitness is always a goal for any early season race. If you’ve done the benchmark testing sessions we talked about in our blogs then you have an idea of where you are at on paper. Now it’s time to see if it translates to race day. Improving your FTP from 240 watts to 260 watts is a solid jump, but will you see the difference in your results? You should, but in XTERRA you also need to have the mountain biking skills in order to take advantage of the extra power.
  2. Remind yourself how to suffer and compete: This is a big one. If you haven’t raced in a while, it takes some time to remind yourself how to suffer even if you’ve gotten in some solid interval sessions throughout the winter. Just about any race can help with this. I love early season mountain bike races because they start so hard and have so many effort changes. It is a great reminder of what it means to suffer and compete. A few of these before my first XTERRA or at least before my “A” races and I feel much more confident attacking each bike course.
  3. Gear check: For those of you in the Northern states, your mountain bike has probably sat all winter. If you’re lucky you were able to get on it a few times with intermittent thaws. A few people I know are just now pulling their bike out of their travel bag from their last race of the 2015 season. An early season race usually pushes us to make sure our bike and other gear are in working order. The week before my first race, I pull out the bike, ride it around a few times and then drag it to the race. The earlier the race is in the season, the sooner I get my it ready for the season. There have been years when my first race of the season was Pelham. Two years ago, I pulled my bike out that week, rode it around the block a few times and showed up in Pelham only to realize I needed a new bottom bracket two days before the race. Don’t be me!
  4. Evaluate goals: Hopefully, you have your goals set for the season and posted so that you can see them every day. On paper you are on track. Early season races can help you make sure you are where you need to be. Finding a sprint, Olympic, or half ironman in April or May will help you evaluate where you are at, and can be a form of benchmark test. I personally like the Olympic or Half Ironman distances. Each leg of the race is an indicator of whether or not I am on pace to hit my goals for the season. Depending on where I am at in my training, and how far away my priority races are determines what I do with the results. Goals can be modified if needed.
  5. Drive future training: Analyze your results. What did you do well? What did you do poorly? What will I do with this data going forward? If you performed exactly as hoped, continue with your current plan. If not, adjust your plan to address your current needs. Maybe you need an eight-week bike focus to boost your power on the bike or maybe you need to stop skipping those swim sessions because you are not as strong as you had expected to be. If you take the time to look over your results, you will find an area to fine tune for your next race, and yes, transitions count!!
  6. Dial in pre-race and race day nutrition: First you practice your nutrition during key workouts, but to know if it truly works for you, you need to implement your nutrition plan for an actual race. Early season races are the time when you can afford to make mistakes with nutrition. Try the nutrition plan that you read about or your coach recommended under race conditions. It’s no fun fighting the urge to hurl the entire bike because your sports drink doesn’t agree with you in your most important race of the year.
  7. Try race strategies: Often we go into races with time goals we want to meet, but we don’t always have actual race strategies in mind. Try something you wouldn’t ordinarily try in an early season race. Perhaps, you have always started on the far outside for your swim because you want your space and don’t want to drown at the first buoy. What would happen if you started on the inside and sprinted for the first 200 yards? Would this allow you to swim with one group ahead of your usual group? You don’t know unless you try. Maybe you want to try attacking every climb on the bike course, but you are afraid you won’t be able to run if you do. Practice it, and then get out and go for it in an early season race!
  8. Execute an entire race plan: Write out a race plan, and then try to execute it. This includes pre-race and race nutrition, the swim, bike, and run legs and transitions. Again, this does not just mean goal times. If you want to catch a group and swim the entire swim with a group rather than on your own in no man’s land, make that part of your swim plan. Go through each aspect of the race and how you plan to handle various scenarios. Race plans rarely turn out exactly as written, but the more prepared you are the better you handle unexpected situations.
  9. Motivation: Those early morning trainer, run, and swim sessions can be brutal. Especially, in the dead of winter when just walking the dog can be tough. I’ve hit my snooze button more than I’d like to admit. Signing up for an early season race can help keep you motivated. Here in Florida, I like to sign up for trail and road races as early as February or March just to help with motivation. Josiah does snowshoe, and fat bike races in the mountains. You need to do whatever is available in your area. Definitely don’t overdue it, but staying motivated during the offseason is vital to a successful season.

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.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – Working Out With a World Champ

Our last article described the 12 strength training guidelines for endurance athletes and now we will give some examples to give you a better idea of what a strength training workout should look like.

Watch the video

Keep in mind that strength training is supplemental and your specific needs may be different to someone else due to age, previous injury, muscle imbalances, or strengths and weaknesses.

This workout consists of 13 exercises, but that was just to give you a wide range of exercises and a typical workout might only consist of 6 or 8 of these.  It starts with glute activation and an integration balance exercise. Then we prioritize with the highest intensity exercises, move to general strength exercises, and finish with core exercises.

During an initial adaptation period I might start with only 2 sets per exercise and then if I really want to focus in on some strength or power development I might pick 2-4 key exercises and perform 4 or 5 sets.  Two strength sessions per week is usually enough for most athletes unless it is during an off-season period where total volume is much lower.  Remember to replace a portion of your endurance training with the strength workouts for better adaptation.  For strength maintenance during the competitive season as little as 1 set per exercise can be performed and only one day per week.

Here is a list of our sample exercises:

  1.  Band side step:  The target muscle is the gluteus medius.  Be careful to keep your feet pointed straight ahead and stay upright.  If the toes angle out then you start to compensate with the TFL and Hip Flexors.
  2.  Band kick backs:  Starting to pull the other gluteal muscles into it.  Perform with a 2 second pause when you kick back and clench the glutes.
  3.  Windmill Toe-Touch:  Glutes are the prime mover here, but you should feel the hamstrings assisting.  Focus on the balance and maintaining a long spine.  Hinge from the hip and also focus on maintaining a plumb line with the hip/knee/ankle of the standing leg.
  4.  Reactive Box Jump:  This is a true plyometric exercise specific to running with the short ground contact time and short amortization phase.  Intensity level can be adjusted by the height of the box.
  5.  Explosive Step-up:  This has a longer amortization phase (change of direction) and longer ground contact time so it also applies well to cycling.  Think of triple extenstion (hip, knee, and ankle extends).
  6.  Scissor Jump:  This is very similar to the explosive step up so I recommend choosing one or the other.  This will make you much more sore the first time so be caution with range of motion and number of reps.
  7.  Kettlebell Swing:  A great precursor to Olympic lifts or as an alternative.  The main focus here is the hip hinge and a powerful motion.  Momentum is your friend so don’t try to slow the way down with your arms.  The motion is more back-to-front and less up-and-down.
  8.  Single-leg Step-down:  Essentially this is a single leg squat with a tap to the floor.  Keep your heel down and get equal angles and the hip and knee by sticking your butt back and chest forward.  Watch the plumb line of the hip/knee/ankle in a mirror.  The main compensations I see are the knee collapsing in and the heel lifting up.
  9.  Plank Press-up:  Assume a push-up position with your feet about shoulder width.  In addition to working your arms you should feel a lot of work in the core while you maintain stability side to side and keep the sway out of your low back.
  10.  Renegade Row:  Start with a similar push-up position and feet shoulder width.  You will have to work harder to keep your body from rotating side-to-side.
  11.  Pull-ups:  Start with some assistance either with a machine or with a workout partner.  Try to use the pronated grip for better Lat recruitment.
  12.  Ball Y-T-Cobra:  This is a great exercise for the forward head, rounded shoulder posture.  Keep your thumbs up towards the sky and pause 2 seconds in each position.  Feel the shoulder blades rotate down and together as you move from the Y to the T to the Cobra.
  13.  Mason Twist with Bounce:  Be a little careful with the amount of rotation you get since the main focus is stability. Another option is a partner ball toss.

Watch the video

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. 

Amy Eck

XTERRA Couch to Trail: Training Starts Now!

It’s time to get off the couch!

In the last two weeks XTERRA guru and Camp Bennett coach Amy Eck has answered some of the basic beginner questions and talked about some of the gear you’ll need to do an XTERRA.

This week she unveils an actual couch-to-trail program that will get your sticky fingers off the remote, out the door, and on your way to your first XTERRA.

The first step, which starts Monday, is literally the first step.

“There is absolutely no intimidation factor here,” explains Eck, who has helped hundreds of athletes get started and get better at all sorts of physical activity over the years, specifically in triathlon.

“Our target audience for this is the guy or girl that hasn’t done much and isn’t sure where to start.  With this plan just follow along, go day-by-day, and you’ll find yourself in much better health and spirit in no time.”

Eck loaded the first two weeks of the FREE program on trainingpeaks.com, and it’s filled with fun videos and easy to follow directions.

Check it out and get started! The time is now.  Live More!

Go here: http://home.trainingpeaks.com/

Click the Login link at the upper right of the website and enter Username: xterracoucher
Password: Hawaii50.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – 12 Strength Training Guidelines

In this third installment of the Middaugh Coaching Corner the World Champ tackles the tricky subject of endurance athletes and their relationship with strength training.

“For me, triathlon training started as a way to cross train for distance running,” said Middaugh. “I realized early on that I was not as durable as some of the other collegiate runners and strength training, swimming, and biking brought some balance and allowed me to continue training through injuries and multiple knee surgeries.  Swimming and biking are great low impact activities, but all triathlon disciplines are incredibly repetitive and can lead to some specific imbalances.  Strength training, when performed properly can improve mechanics, resist injury, and improve performance.  Personally I shoot for 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training starting in the off season then shift to strength maintenance during the competitive season.  Sometimes I will revisit a strengthening focus during a mid-season break.”

Ultimately, Middaugh explains, the goal of strength training should be two-fold: injury prevention, and a positive transfer of strength, power, muscular endurance, and movement efficiency to the sports themselves.

“Since movement patterns of swimming, biking, and running are extremely repetitive it is important to address movement impairments with targeted strengthening of under-active muscle groups to prevent injury. For performance, the exercises need to be very specific in terms of movement patterns and velocity. Properly periodized programs move from general to specific and in the case of endurance sports they need to start as specific and move to more specific to avoid conflicting peripheral adaptations. For swimming, cycling, and running, this means eventually performing a portion of the resistance training within the targeted sports.”

Middaugh went on to say the timing of your strength training is important as well…

“Although strength training has been demonstrated effective in all phases of an annual plan, it makes the most sense to start strength training during the off-season to avoid overtraining. If you can put in a solid 12-16 weeks of structured strength training now, there is a “Long Lasting Training Effect” and a “Long-Term Delayed Training Effect” of special strength preparation that can yield great results during the competitive season. What this means is that you might not see the benefit initially, and in some cases performance can decline a little, but long term it can be very beneficial. Here are some real guidelines to help you develop an off season strength routine.”

Read the full article:

Josiah’s 12 strength training guidelines every endurance athlete needs to know


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. 

XTERRA Couch to Trail: The Gear You’ll Need

In this second part of the XTERRA Couch to Trail series  designed to help first-timers get into the sport our fearless leader Amy Eck (who once did XTERRA Worlds in an above-elbow arm cast) talks about the basic gear you’ll need to get into it…

XTERRA consists of swim, bike, and run so you’ll need …

For the swim you’ll want a set of goggles that stick to your face.  You want it to fit similar to a dive mask where the goggle cups can stick for a few seconds without even using the strap.  There are many types and shapes of goggles so take some time to try them on and select a pair that fits your face shape.  Note that many goggles also come with interchangeable nose pieces that allow you to change the distance between the lenses and get your ideal fit.  I like to keep a training pair and a nice pair for races.  Think about when and where you will be training and racing when deciding on tint color.  In the pool I prefer a clear goggle.  For ocean swims here in Hawaii I often wear a tinted goggle that cuts the glare of the sun.  If the water is not very clear, you will want a low or no tint goggle.  If you want more coverage in a goggle, check out Aqua Sphere.  During the race you will need to wear a swim cap for safety so be sure to practice with one.  The cap increases your visibility, helps to retain heat, and keeps the goggles on your head and out of your hair.  Many races also have different cap colors to separate divisions and heats.

Depending on the water temperature where you are racing and training you may or may not need a wetsuit.  If you need to race in a wetsuit, check out XTERRA Wetsuit rental options in your area and at the race and do some training in the wetsuit.  XTERRA has some great wetsuits and speed suits.  They seem to take the most abuse and still perform.   Try on different wetsuits so you can make a good decision on size and type needed.  Most wetsuits are full body, sleeveless (farmer john), long legged, or “shorty” (short sleeves and legs).  Consider the water temperature, comfort, range of motion, and need when deciding on a wetsuit.  Make sure to read the instructions and care for your wetsuit properly.  If your race and climate does not require a wetsuit, you will want to wear a triathlon suit, and perhaps a speed suit, that reduces drag in the water.  The xterrawetsuits.com website is also a great resource for more info.

XTERRA is off-road so the next piece of gear you will need is a mountain bike.  Get to know your local bike shop and talk to them about your goals, budget, and what type of races that you will be competing in.  Most bike shops offer rental bikes, maintenance classes, new, and used bikes.  Use this amazing resource and support them!  These are the guys who will be maintaining your bike and keeping you alive.  They will help you get the right fit, the right bike, and point you to where trails and rides are going on.  You get what you pay for, so try to spend as much money as you can comfortably afford to invest.

Bikes come in male and female specific and most range in size from XS-XL or are sized by seat tube height in inches.  The seat tube height is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket (where your crank arms connect to the frame) to the top of the seat tube (where the seat post enters the frame).  Work with the bike shop so they can tell you what size bikes you should demo and whether male or female sizing is best for you. Ladies, I have been racing mountain bikes for over 10 years and have only ridden unisex bikes with no problem so look at your arm and leg length to see which is a better fit.  Women’s specific bikes often have a shorter top tube, narrower handlebars, shorter stems (what connects the handlebar to the bike), shorter cranks (the part connected to the pedals), wider saddles, smaller diameter grips, shorter reach on the brake levers, adjusted fork and shock for the lighter weight rider, and feminine color choices.  Another aspect of sizing is wheel size.  Mountain bikes come in 26, 27.5 and 29 inch wheels.  Mountain bikes started as 26-inch wheel bikes, then jumped to 29 and then some liked them in between with the 27.5.  Bigger wheels roll over terrain easier.  A 29-inch wheel rolls about 6% easier than a 26-inch wheel.  Other advantages of a 29-inch wheel are that you can pedal at the same speed with less effort, you are more stable, and it gives a hardtail some of the advantages of suspension without the additional cost.  Disadvantages would be that they are bigger (10% bigger) and if you are racing a lot of tight corners some find them harder to maneuver.  If you get a 29er, be sure to have a nice light wheel set.  I have raced 26 inch and 29 inch wheels and LOVE the 29er.  I am 5’5” and have no issue maneuvering the beast and love the added “forgiveness” the 29er gives me over terrain when I am tired and my skills are lacking.  For you roadies, remember that a 26-inch wheel is a 650cc wheel and a 29er is a 700cc wheel.  Which do you prefer to ride on your road and triathlon bike?

XTERRA is a cross country race so a cross country (XC) type mountain bike will likely be your best choice.  Cross country bikes come in hardtail and full-suspension.  A hardtail has a front shock and a hard back with no suspension where full suspension bike has a shock on the front and the back.  Suspension on the bike soothes the ride, improves control, aids with braking, and absorbs impact.  Talk to your shop to see what best suits your training and racing area and discuss any medical conditions that you may have.  If you are strapped on cash, a hardtail will likely be less expensive and just as effective at helping you finish your race but if you have a bad back you may need the full suspension.  Whatever suspension you choose, be sure to set it up correctly based on your weight and riding style.  Most riders, like 99%, don’t have their suspension set up correctly so be sure to talk with the shop about how to set up and maintain your suspension.  If you purchase a used bike, search and find set up instructions online.  Most shops sell pumps that will work on most shops.  Manufacturers also restore and reseal shocks.  When folks talk about travel they are talking about the amount that your fork or shock can compress.  Increasing travel slackens the geometry giving you a softer ride.  For XTERRA conditions you want to dial your fork lower so you can have more precise climbing and technical riding. If you have the travel too loose you will lose energy and bounce up the hill as all your work is being lost in the travel.

Now that you have your bike be sure to invest in some tools to help you ride it safely.  Take a maintenance class.  At a minimum you need to have a multi-tool to adjust it, a spare tire kit, a bike pump, chain lube, pedals, and some shoes.  You will maximize your pedal stroke with pedals and clip in shoes.  There are lots of options when it comes to shoes and pedals.  In the beginning it may be smart to get a pedal with more platform.  Get used to your bike without clipping in.  Once you gain confidence on how to move and shift the bike, practice the clip ins by riding in a soft grassy field.  Practice turns, getting clipped and unclipped, and stopping and getting off your bike.  Don’t get discouraged when you fall.  We have all been there.  Part of mountain biking is learning how to fall correctly.  The main injury can be the “endo” where you fly over the handlebars on your shoulder or head. Avoid this by always getting back on your seat when descending steep terrain. Also being cautious with your braking, too much front brake can send you over the handlebars. Feathering both brakes will allow smoother slowing and control. You also want to work on getting your legs out to minimize injury.  Find a friend who has been riding for a while and ask them for some help.  Your local bike shop or club may also have some tips and training available.  Since you will be hopping off and on the bike in off-road triathlon you will want shoes with some tread.  Most racers use cleated shoes.  Almost like a football or soccer cleat with a clip in adapter for your pedal.  Find a pair that will stay comfortably on your feet with a sturdy sole for good power transfer to the pedal.  I also like to find a shoe with good ventilation and something that appears easy to clean.  Mountain bikers get dirty!

Another piece of gear good for mountain biking is a hydration pack.  When you are riding it is hard to reach for a bottle, especially when you are beginning.  Choose a pack that has some room for your tools, treats and a bladder that supports your race distance.  Some hydration packs strap around your waist and others across your back.  I really like the vest type.  I get a hydration pack in the back and pockets in the front for the food I will need to eat along the way.  Try on different backs at your local bike, run, and triathlon shops.  Choose a pack with a removable bladder and replacement pieces so you can keep it clean from mold & mildew.  I like to only put water in my hydration pack and use bottles for other calorie options.  You have to carry this thing and water is heavy.  1 liter of water weighs 1000 grams or 2.2 pounds.  Once you get really good on the bike you can try riding with bottles and choose what best suits you for racing and training.  Now that I have become a better rider, I can use either.  If I am racing at an event like the Leadville 100 where the temperature keeps changing and I need to breathe, sweat, and make costume changes, I prefer bottles.  At something like XTERRA where I barely have time to recover going down the hill before going up another, I like my hydration pack.

Now that you have shoes, a tool, and a pack, get a helmet.  Never ride without a helmet.  Most races will disqualify you if you are riding without a helmet, even from your car to transition.  Protect your melon!  Go for comfort and cooling.  Remember to treat your helmet with care.  Once it is cracked or tossed or part of a crash, it needs to be replaced.  Keep it strapped.  If it is unstrapped, it can’t do its job. A helmet with a sun shield is nice for hot sunny days.

Now it is time for the run!  Since you are racing on trails you will want to think about terrain.  Is it loose, hard packed, covered in roots, usually muddy, etc.  Just like you need to pick tires on your bike to match the terrain, you want to think about the tread on your shoes.  Different shoes are good in different conditions so ask around and check the area that you will be racing in.  You may also need to train in a certain type of shoe and race in another.  Most of the professional and seasoned XTERRA racers train in trail shoes and race in racing flats but some prefer trail shoes all the time.  I personally keep a training pair of shoes and a racing pair of shoes.  I use my racing flat for track work and also on at least one long run before the race.  The rest of my training is done in a road shoe or road runs and a trail shoe for challenging trail runs.  Train like you are going to race.  If you want to wear socks on race day, wear socks to train.  If you want to race without socks, train without socks.  Race day is not the time to try anything new. No new shoes, no new nutrition, no new anything.  Train and race with what works.  Also practice running off the bike by doing transition runs for 10-20 minutes immediately off the bike.  You may find that the lighter racing flats help you transition better or you may find you need more support as your legs are wobbling!  Since XTERRA is on the trail you need to be able to see.  You may find that on the trail you need a lighter or even clear lenses for your glasses.  You also want to consider wearing hats and visors backwards.  The rim will restrict your view and you may not see a tree or other obstacle.

Other great gear to have is a triathlon bag to hold all of your racing and training gear, a race belt, and a triathlon suit.  The backpack can be any bag that you keep all your stuff in.  Please make a bag.  I keep multiple pairs of goggles and caps in my bag.  I have never gone to a race where another racers has not needed my spare pair.  Save your friends!  I also pack a small towel and old bath mat to use in transition to place my gear on and clean my feet.  I also keep an empty water bottle in my bag.  I have forgotten my hydration back before and had the water bottle save me.  Next I make sure I have my bike and running shoes.  A race belt is a belt that your race number snaps on to.  I like to use a belt with a pocket and keep a gel pack and some salt tablets so I am ready for anything.  You also need to think about lubrication for yourself.  Blister shield in your shoes, body glide or coconut oil on all your chafing spots, and sunscreen can really make race day more pleasant!

Good luck on your gear search. Once you’ve got it come on back and we’ll get started on some training plans.  It’s a good time to check out the XTERRA calendar and find a race in your area or maybe even do a destination race as a goal, and we will put together some training plans to help you get ready for an XTERRA event this summer.

Middaugh Coaching Corner – Benchmark Testing

There are two main reasons to do benchmark testing.  The first is to figure out your current fitness level and the second is to identify the intensity levels to use during training.  With so many gadgets becoming more cost effective, you need to make sure you are putting them to good use instead of just racing your last known performance every time.  Let us help you simplify that process a little and dial in proper pace, heart rate, and power zones.

Many people are reluctant to have their level of performance cemented in and can’t take the blow to their ego.  One way to look it is if you are not “rested” enough to test, then how will you be rested enough to do hard workouts let alone race?  If you are never in a state to be able to put up an honest effort for a benchmark test, then maybe there is a problem with your training load.  Think of the testing as another hard workout and it is just a measure of where you are on that day.  Since you are using the results to guide your training, you just need the same level of freshness that you need to perform a hard workout, since that is close to the state you will be in when you use the data.

The worst feeling is showing up for a race and being surprised by a poor performance, especially if you know you have put in the time. It often occurs after long training blocks with little or no racing such as early season. You closely followed your workouts, but you get shelled during a race. Chances are you did not track your progress like you should have. After the XTERRA World Championship last fall I was asked if I was surprised by the win. The answer was no, but not because of a false sense of ability, but because I knew that the numbers I was seeing in my training didn’t lie.  I was confident because I had tracked my progress using benchmark testing. I had verified those numbers on the CompuTrainer, in the pool, and on the trail.

Benchmark testing should occur in each discipline every 6-8 weeks during the off season, and strategically during your race season to make sure you are making progress towards your goals. 6-8 weeks is enough time to make gains, but not so much time you can’t modify your training if you’ve plateaued. There is nothing more frustrating than training all winter and unknowingly starting your season behind where you ended your previous season.

Yaro’s previous article talked about setting process goals and benchmark testing is a great way to do this.  Knowing where you are in each discipline also helps you set more realistic, specific goals. If you can currently hold 6:30 min./mile pace for 30 minutes then 6:15 is a realistic pace for a key race in June. However 5:45 min./mile may not be. Sometimes athletes need to double check and evaluate their goals for each discipline after they have completed their first set of benchmark tests. If you take your second benchmark run test in February and you have gone from 6:30 min./mile to 6:05 then maybe that 5:45 is possible by June. Benchmark testing helps ensure that you go into each race with realistic goals and a solid plan.

“You are looking to satisfy two criteria for benchmark testing, reliability and repeatability”

Keep it simple

There are numerous benchmark tests that can be used to measure progress in your swim bike and run. For over 12 years I administered VO2 max tests running and biking, which can yield some good information, but I still prefer simple field tests to measure progress and set zones.  The type of step test needed to reach VO2 max is not very good for determining heart rate zones, power or paces and usually overestimates output and underestimates heart rate.

You are looking to satisfy two criteria for benchmark testing, reliability and repeatability. Steady-state field tests that have you performing closer to your race intensity are the best. Too short and it isn’t reliable, too long and it isn’t repeatable.  I am often asked why I don’t do shorter 8 or 10 minute tests on the bike and the truth is that they are just not as reliable as a 20-30 minute test.  Your goal is to gather some metrics that you can use in your training to guide your intensity levels.

“You are doing your clients a disservice when you prescribe heart rate zones based on age-predicted equations”

A word on heart rate

During my master’s program, one of my professors emphasized that you are doing your clients a disservice when you prescribe heart rate zones based on any age predicted equation.  It is true that max heart rate does gradually decline with age, but the variation can be huge.  About 20 percent of the population will fit into the age predicted equations, but for the rest of us, the variation can be plus or minus 20 beats!  For most of us we would be better off just match heart rate with perceived effort than using any age predicted equation.

I like to use heart rate for steady endurance efforts below threshold, and long steady-state tempo and threshold bouts.  Since it lags behind the workload, it is not the best indicator for shorter, harder efforts.  During low to moderate intensity you should see a long plateau as workload is kept constant, but as you approach threshold, you will see heart rate ramp.  This can also happen at lower intensities in heat and humidity. With any steady state bout, you will see heart rate decouple with either pace (runners) or power (bikers) at some point.  This means that for any sustained effort you will eventually see either a drop in pace/power, and/or an increase in heart rate and rating of perceived exertion.  This can have big implications for longer races.

“Heart rate max is arbitrary and heart rate zones are individual”

Heart rate alone means nothing. Heart rate max is arbitrary and heart rate zones are individual. It is pointless to keep asking your training partner what his/her heart rate is while you are out training together.  One big misconception is that heart rate at threshold should increase with training.  Output at your threshold heart rate should increase but the heart rate number itself may remain unchanged or in some cases even go down slightly.  Remember your goal is always to do more work at submax heart rates which are specific to you.

Heart rate can also be a good indicator of parasympathetic nervous system fatigue.  When RPE is much higher for any given heart rate, then I know that I am feeling some cumulative over-reaching symptoms.  Heart rate can also be affected acutely by previous hard workouts, illness, heat/humidity, and dehydration.

A word on power

Talking to some people and you are lead to believe that power is the holy grail of training metrics.  However, for it to be useful, you need to test it frequently.  Power zones change the most with your performance level, while heart rate zones have very little variation within a macrocycle.

Power also can fluctuate in a huge range.  In 2011 I had an SRM on my mountain bike and I remember in a 1 hour race, counting 113 spikes over 500 watts, but average power was in the low 300s.  It can be impossible to use power as a good guide during a workout if you are jumping around in a `100 watt range.

I like to use power for my indoor training, and on smooth road climbs with consistent grades.  If you live in a very flat area, power can be a great metric since wind can have such a big impact on your speed. If you are on the mountain bike, or on variable terrain, power will not be very useful to guide you during, but could be good to analyze after.  Since power is almost instantaneous, it can be a good metric for shorter efforts and for pacing early parts of longer efforts.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), the original training metric

Ultimately, we are trying to determine intensity levels to use during training and racing.  Training metrics can be divided into two main categories, subjective and objective.  Rating of perceived exertion is a subjective training metric and can be used in combination with other measurements, especially when racing.  In a rested state, such as following a proper taper you might be surprised at the heart rates that you can sustain and it is sometimes a mistake to be hold yourself back too much in medium length races.  For example, in training I can only sustain zone 4 heart rates for 10-15 minutes, but racing I can hang in zone 5 for over an hour.  Always verify heart rates and power levels with RPE.

Conversely, RPE can sometimes lead you astray with no objective measures to keep you honest.  For example if I ride inside without heart rate or power, I would think I was working sufficiently hard based on the pool of sweat gathering, but the reality might be that I am riding no harder than a brisk walk.  The reason to use a combination of measures is to dial in the proper intensity level to make that adaptations you are looking for.

Volume metrics such as time, distance, kilojoules/calories

Training load = Volume X Intensity.  Most people are too concerned with the metrics that measure their training volume and neglect intensity level.  Runners and cyclists can become obsessed with miles per week, and swimmers about yards per week.  As triathletes it is hard to compete with these single sport athletes in those categories, so we obsess about hours per week.  A metric I always think is odd to track is total kilojoules or calories, which might make sense if you are on a weight loss program, but not for performance.  In 2004 I was teaching the XTERRA University in Maui for the World Championship and I remember Greg Welch asking me how many hours I put in per week on the bike.  I felt embarrassed to say it was around 4 hours, because most of my competition was putting in 10-15 hours per week on the bike.  I went on to post the fastest bike split the next day.

“We don’t race on paper”

Final thoughts

I try not to be tied to any one of these metrics, but rather use them to guide me.  Heart rate zones, power zones, or pace zones don’t always match up and they aren’t always intended to.  Training zones are never set in stone. Be aware of the benefits and limitation of each metric you use.

One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t race on paper.  Use these benchmark tests to guide your training and gauge your race readiness, but ultimately the real test will be on the course.  Your testing is specific to you and be careful when making comparisons to others.  Some athletes are just gamers who don’t test well and rise to the occasion in a race.  Others train to train and have a hard time putting it together in the races.

Specific Benchmark Testing Protocols

For specific benchmark testing protocols and zone calculations we have put together on for each discipline on our www.middaughcoaching.com:

  1. Swim testing protocol to determine threshold pace
  1. Bike testing protocol to determine Functional Threshold Power, power zones, and heart rate zones
  1. Run testing protocol to determine threshold pace, heart rate and training zones

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 Middaugh brothers coaching at www.middaughcoaching.com.

XTERRA’s Couch to Trail Series Intro

Meet Lauren, a college student and aspiring XTERRA triathlete.

“I’m looking to test my limits and find my true potential,” she said.  “I was trying to find a challenge that was do-able, but totally out of the ordinary and I came across XTERRA.  It looks extraordinary and that is how I want to feel … extraordinary.  But, where do I start?”

Answer: Right here, with our new XTERRA Couch to Trail program designed to help first-timers get into the sport.  We’ll start by answering some of the first questions that came to Lauren’s mind, and we’ll evolve from there. Every other week XTERRA will share ideas just for beginners in the Couch to Trail column, and on alternating weeks the Middaugh Coaching Corner column will delve into training ideologies and specifics.

First, some of the basics, with answers and ideas from XTERRA gurus Amy Eck and Mimi Stockton….


Q: I know XTERRA combines swimming, mountain biking, and trail running, but what are the distances?
A:  It varies.  The shortest XTERRA race, our “Xticer” super-sprint race, combines a 200-meter swim with a 10K (6.2-mile) mountain bike ride and a 2K (1.25-mile) trail run.  Our standard championship distance combines a 1.5K swim (1-mile) with a 30K mtb (18.6-mile) and 10K (6.2-mile) trail run. We also have sprint races that are half those distances.

Q: How far would 200-meters be in my local pool?
A:  It depends.  An Olympic size pool is 50 meters in each direction, but most U.S. pools are 25-yards (23-meters) in each direction.

Q: What bodies of water are the swims generally done in?
A: There are XTERRA races with swims in oceans, lakes, and rivers.  I would have to say the majority of our swims are done in lakes.

Q: Are there separate events for people of different skill levels?
A: Yes.  There are different distances, different wave starts, and different age classifications.  So if you’re 27-years-old you’d be racing other competitors in the 25-29 age group. Depending on the event, there are usually several “wave” starts for the swim. For example: all pros start first. Then, three minutes later all men, and three minutes after them, all women.  This also varies per event.

Q: What conditions would the weather have to be like for the swim to get canceled?
A: Safety is always first, and there are number of scenario’s where a swim can get cancelled – unhealthy water, freezing water, high water – but it doesn’t happen very often.  In 20 years of XTERRA, there has only been a few notable cancellations, like when the James River in Richmond, Virginia was flowing so fast it turned into a Class IV rapid.

Q: What should I do in order to prepare my body?
Mimi: This is a question I get asked a lot from people who are just starting out in the world of triathlon.  I tell them that the body is a finely tuned machine, and if you don’t take great care of it, it won’t perform optimally.  If you’ve decided to take the plunge and do your first XTERRA, you’re going to have to devote time and energy into training and buy some equipment.  Treat your body well.  Eat whole foods most of the time, take time to stretch out those tired and sore muscles, get enough sleep (this is when your body is repairing itself and getting ready for the next training session) and truly rest on the off days.  Listen to your body.  If you just aren’t feeling it one day, take it off.  Missing one workout isn’t going to make or break you.  I train a lot by feel and think nothing of taking off a day if I just don’t feel good.  Especially as you get older, diet and rest become increasingly more important.

Q: Is it better to train in groups or as an individual?
Mimi: I think this is a very personal decision.  If you are a person that enjoys group training in general, then by all means, train in groups.  Many people agree that group training can make you faster by pushing you to go harder.  I know for me this is definitely true in the pool.  And for beginner mountain bikers, I would definitely suggest going out with an experienced mountain biker–one who can teach you skills and help boost your confidence.  Group training is by no means necessary however.  I tend to do all of my bike and run training solo.  I enjoy training alone and most of my workouts are tailored to me specifically.  Furthermore, I can do them when I have time during the day. I do swim with others in the pool, primarily because this is my weak leg, and I need to be pushed and like to be pushed.  I believe I have gotten faster because of it.

Q: Preparing for something so rigorous needs a starting point in which to build from, so where do you suggest I start?
Amy: To be successful at anything you need a PLAN. In your triathlon preparation, finding educated professionals to taking on 3 sports can be overwhelming, and if done incorrectly can cause one to injure him or herself, so a great place to start is to partner up with a coach and possibly a training group for social and technical support.  The BEST place to find a triathlon coach is to go to theusatriathlon.org website and look for a certified coach in your area.  There, you will also find a list of USA Triathlon approved and insured clubs.  Make sure that both your coach and your club are certified, as that will ensure your maximum safety (club will provide insurance) and sport knowledge.  In other words, you will be safe and have fun in scheduled workouts so you can be healthy and perform well in your race when the time arrives.

Note:  There are a lot of great XTERRA-specific coaches out there that can do training from afar and/or in-person. Josiah Middaugh of Middaugh Coaching; Lesley Paterson of Braveheart Coaching; Cody Waite from Sessions6; and Amy Eck from Camp Bennett are just a few.

Q: Is there a Triathlon community that is more social rather than competitive?
A: That’s XTERRA!  This community is very welcoming, and while the racing is competitive the people are widely referred to as the nicest in all of triathlon.

Q: What is the hardest leg of the Triathlon?
Mimi: This is different for each person.  Some start doing triathlons after a swimming or running career.  Others have spent significant time bike racing.  Then, there are some that have experience in all three sports, or some have no experience at all.  For me, the hardest leg has always been swimming.  I can practice all the time and feel great in the water, but it is still my weak spot.  Thank goodness it is the shortest leg of the triathlon!  Because it is the shortest leg, I realize that even if I’m not the strongest swimmer I’ll be able to make up the time on the bike and/or the run.  But still, I swim a lot and continuously trying to improve my stroke and overall speed.   I think many would agree, however; that the mountain bike portion of any race is usually the hardest just by virtue of it being the longest.  Then again, if you hate to run, you might beg to differ and argue that running 4-6 miles on trails after biking is the hardest part.

Q: How prepared do I need to be for terrain obstacles?
Mimi: Since each course is different, you need to be prepared to face anything and everything.  I think feeling comfortable tackling obstacles are essential to making yourself feel confident on race day.  I try and do all my running on trails.  And of course, it’s great to do long endurance rides on a road bike or trainer, but nothing beats riding a mountain bike on trails to get you ready for race day.  I really don’t think you can compare road biking with mountain biking.  The latter requires so much more athleticism, power, momentum and coordination. The only way to feel comfortable and confident on a mountain bike is to practice, practice, practice.

Q: How much money would I need to get started?
Mimi: There’s no doubt about it, triathlon is an expensive sport and hobby.  How much money you spend really varies.  Certain things are required of course, but how much you spend on those required items is entirely up to you.  The mountain bike, bike shoes and helmet are going to be the costliest items. Oh, and perhaps a wetsuit.  If you are just starting out, I might recommend testing out various bikes to see if you want to go with a full suspension or hardtail.  One option is to buy a used bike or borrow one from a friend.  There are plenty of great used bikes on the market.

Q: Is there a season for this?
A: Year-round!  There may be two-feet of snow on the U.S. East Coast right now (Feb. 1), but it’s summertime in South Africa so their season is in full swing.  The sport is more conducive to warmer weather.

Q: Is there an off season? Or should I plan to train all year long whether there is an upcoming race or not.
Mimi: There is an off season and most people would consider it to be November and December.  It’s a good idea to take a physical and mental break during these months to recharge and focus on something other than swimming, biking and running.  I think you’ll find that when you start training again in January, your body and mind will thank you for the much needed time off.

Q: What are average times I should shoot for?
A: To start, just getting to the start line on time and happy is a good goal.  The accomplishment of finishing is the first step to master, and is a super rewarding feeling when you’re just getting started.

Look for part 2 of the newbie FAQ on February 18, and a launch of a three-month training program to get you ready for your first XTERRA to debut on March 3.  If you have a newbie question you’d like answered, email it to lauren@xterraplanet.com.