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.


Middaugh Coaching Corner – 24hrs Until the Cannon

It’s 24 hours before an important race, the hay is in the barn, but there are still some details that can make or break your race.

  1. Don’t sabotage your race with that final workout or pre-ride.  With XTERRA it is important to be familiar with the race course but not at the expense of your race performance.  Typically we don’t recommend riding much more than an hour, so consider riding just a portion of the course at easy to moderate intensities.  If your race week is on track and you have arrived tapered, you may benefit from some potentiation reps the day before the race, which consist of just a few short efforts at race intensity (but hold back, not all out!).  Beware not to try to ride with your strong buddy the day before. Let him go and do your thing!
  2. Although there will be a lot of variation here, there are some things to keep in mind the day before the race. In a hot/humid environment, hydration is important and should have started in the days before.  However, we are not just talking about water, make sure that you drink consistently throughout the day and include some electrolytes in your drink and/or in your food. Stick with familiar foods and search for a variety of carbohydrate sources with each meal to top off your muscle and liver glycogen.  This will be your primary fuel source during the race and compared to a low carb diet, someone in a carbo-loaded state can store almost twice as much carbohydrate which can double your time to exhaustion at race intensity.
  3. Bike set up. The day before your race is not the time to take your bike in for a full tune up, but you should go through and double check that all nuts and bolts are tight. Because XTERRA athletes are always out pre-riding the course, there often is last minute maintenance that needs to be done. Learn to do some basic maintenance yourself, and always figure out where the closest bike shop is so that you can make a last second visit if needed. Be patient and bring them a coffee the next time you stop in. They will remember you!
  4. Mental imagery. Setting aside time to visualize what you plan to do is often an overlooked aspect of racing. Go through the entire race, including transitions. Visualize how you want your race to go, and be specific. Throw a couple scenarios in there that could occur. How will you handle them? I like to use association as a mental strategy rather than disassociation.  This means that I visualize the feelings and sensations that I will feel during the race including the discomfort.  The focus is on your own physical state so that you are not surprised when you get into the race and it feels hard.
  5. Race plan. We often hear athletes say that they don’t like to go into a race with a plan because every race is different and can be hard to predict. It can be hard to establish clear goals since XTERRA racing depends a lot on other people and times are less relevant, but you can still put together some goals for pacing and nutrition. Plan your effort and plan your nutrition either based on time or distance.
  6. Race morning. Again, stick with familiar pre-race foods that you know you can digest.  For a 9:00 start try to consume your pre-race “meal” around 6:00-6:30am.  Avoid high fat or high protein foods, but it is ok to include some to help lower the glycemic index of your meal and give it some staying power.  The goal is just to top off your glycogen stores.  The same goes for fluids—you don’t need to guzzle down large amounts of water, but fill up a bottle when you wake up and sip on it up until the race.  Finally, a strategy that can work well for races lasting over 90 minutes is to take a carbohydrate gel 15 minutes before the start.  The theory is that you won’t have time for the insulin response and the calories will be used as they are assimilated so you are not pulling from your glycogen stores.
  7. Transition bag checklist. Use a checklist! Athletes often run around the night before a race and race morning with no focus. They start setting up their transition and then get distracted and start doing something else. Use your checklist to ensure you have everything and try to pack it in the same place each time. This repetition will make race morning much less stressful and your significant other will also appreciate it.


Goggles, spare goggles
Swim Cap
Body glide
Bike helmet
Cycling shoes
Bike gloves
Rubber bands
Baby powder
Running shoes
Running hat/visor
Nutrition (energy drink, gels, recovery drink)
Transition towel
Bike pump
Number belt
Duct tape/ electrical tape
Timing chip, race numbers

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.

Josiah Middaugh

Middaugh Coaching Corner – XTERRA Racing Tips

XTERRA Racing Tips

Many of you have already raced your first XTERRA of the season or it is right around the corner. We thought this would be a good time to give you a few racing tips.

  1. Keep Fighting
    XTERRA can be grueling. You can get kicked in the face and lose your goggles during the swim, crash or get a flat on the bike, roll your ankle or maybe even slip and crash into a log at full speed on the run. Despite all this you can still do well, and possibly even reach your goal for the race. At the XTERRA World Championships last year Josiah crashed on the bike twice and decided to take a log on with his chest in the run rather than jump over it like everyone else. That didn’t work by the way, but he did win the race. One of the most amazing things about XTERRA is that it is a battle and things rarely go as planned, but you never know what can happen if you don’t stop fighting!
  2. Know the Course
    XTERRA is known for their epic courses that traverse all sorts of challenging terrain. No two courses are the same. Organizers do their very best to mark these courses in a way that is easy to follow so that each racer can focus on the race, but things happen. Someone may do an endo and take out an arrow, or an arrow or course tape may simply fall down despite an organizer’s best efforts. Your job is to know the course. Don’t train for months for a race and then show up on race day with no knowledge of the course and miss a turn. You will either end up disqualified or add a bunch of extra mileage and blow any chance of a good result.
  3. Buy New Goggles
    I can’t believe how many people tell me they were swimming great, but their goggles fogged up and they couldn’t see where they were going. You are riding a $2,000+ mountain bike. Spend $15 dollars so that you can see where you’re going in the swim!
  4. Plan and Scrap, but Don’t Panic
    Know the course, race to your strengths, come up with a plan and rehearse it in your mind so that you are prepared for race day, but be ready to scrap it if things don’t go as planned. Just the process of coming up with your plan allows you to go over many different scenarios that could occur during the race. When something new is thrown at you in the race you will be much more equipped to handle it. Keep the pressure on, but whatever you do don’t panic!
  5. Let ‘em by, but don’t let ‘em go
    Everyone in an XTERRA is out there to perform their very best. If someone comes up behind you on the bike or run, let them go by. Obviously they are going faster than you and may be stronger or just know the course better. Think of it as an opportunity to actually move up yourself. Let them go by and see if you can stick with them. Perhaps they know the course and following them will actually allow you to move up.
  6. Practice your Race
    Practice your race in training with as close to race conditions as possible. This includes gear! Everyone knows not to try anything new on race day, and if not, now you do! But what we often forget is to also make sure our race gear is ready to go. Try on your wetsuit, throw your race wheels on for a ride, wear your race shoes without socks, break out that new speed suit, and adjust your new goggles before race morning!! If you build it into your training it will happen. If not, you’ll probably have some sort of unwelcome surprise race morning.
  7. Fuel Early and Often
    You just finished wailing the water as hard as you could for 20+ minutes in the swim and for some reason you are surprised your legs don’t seem to work right on the bike. Use this time to start fueling for the rest of your race. Do not get half way through the bike and decide it’s time to start fueling only to find your water bottle ejected during that last rocky section leaving you without hydration or nutrition for the entire swim and bike. Remember you want to take in 200-300 calories per hour. The bike is the easiest place to ensure this happens.
  8. No Chafe Lotion is Your Friend
    If you’ve raced already this season you probably found a few spots on your body that just rubbed the wrong way. It may have been your neck from your wetsuit, heel or toes during the run, saddle sores on the bike, your armpits from your tri jersey, or maybe some super odd place you never would have thought could chafe. There’s nothing worse than having to take an extra rest day or two because you can’t sit on your bike or put your shoes on from chafing. Body glide and other no chafe lotions aren’t the key to a great race, but boy does it help, and it might just allow you to walk a little more normal to the post party and maybe even throw down a dance move or two.
  9. Transitions are not a Picnic
    Get in and get out! This does not mean that you race through the transition area so fast you forget your helmet or race belt. You need to practice your transitions and be as efficient and fast as possible. You should know what you need from transition and have it laid out the same way every time so that it becomes automatic and you’re not scrambling to find items. Get rid of anything you do not need. It should not look like a convenience store shelf that you stand in front of reading labels trying to figure out what looks best for the next leg. They are actually free speed. Use it!
  10. Stay Focused
    How many of you have ridden the most technical part of a mountain bike course completely clean only to trip over a rock or root that was in plain view during the run, or been in contact with a group in the swim or bike only to lose them at the very end costing you valuable seconds or even minutes? You lost focus. When you come up with your race plan and preview the course also think about what it will take to stay focused. Everyone is different, but you need to figure out when you often lose time and focus and build in reminders for yourself.
  11. Stay Calm and Swim On
    The swim is usually the leg where triathletes tend to panic. Come up with a strategy for your swim and practice it in open water with others whenever possible. If you are a slower swimmer do not start on the front line. Instead start back and on the outside to avoid the masses at the first buoy. Remember, just because the cannon goes off, doesn’t mean you have to dive in and swim as hard as you can. Stop and count to 3-5 and then dive in. Athletes often get so caught up in the moment that they sprint the first 200 of the swim as hard as they can, forget to breathe and swim the next 400 in panic mode trying to calm themselves down. If this is you, go out hard, but back it off quickly and concentrate on your breathing. If you do feel panic coming on focus on getting a good breath and blowing bubbles at a steady rate. Don’t stop swimming because you will only get run over by everyone else behind you making your panic worse. Stay calm and swim on. Hopping in small local triathlons can be a good place to get some practice if you do not have a group to swim with.
  12. Warm Up
    You need to warm up well for every XTERRA. The more you don’t feel like it, the more you probably need it. Many do all three disciplines for short durations in reverse order, some bike and then swim, others run and then swim and then there are those that do nothing but swing their arms. Get your heart elevated with a few minutes easy and a few short intervals in whichever discipline that gets you ready to do work. At the very least swim for 6-10 minutes with a few short bursts to get you ready for the start. Don’t stand there and swing your arms and expect to have a great race.

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 atwww.middaughcoaching.com.

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.