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A Biopsychosocial Approach to Triathlon Coaching

The importance of the physiological and scientific underpinnings of triathlon performance is often over-emphasized both by coaches, media publications and athletes themselves. How do social and psychological components factor in to the ultimate success of the amateur triathlete?

A little while back I listened to a Scientific Triathlon podcast of Kerry McGawley, a top age group triathlete, who won her age group (45-49) at the 2023 70.3 World Championships. These podcasts usually interview pro triathletes, and while interesting, I'm coaching all age groupers. So I was interested to hear from someone who potentially shares some of the constraints in motivation and priorities as the athletes I coach.

McGawley is self-coached and has a strong background as a sports scientist (her day job) so I was expecting her to chat a lot about the data and science behind her training regimen and the optimizing of that to achieve what she has. But what I got from the interview was something completely different. Much of what she stated as being important to her success in training had little to do with physiology, or periodization, or training intensity zones or lactate measurements. Here are some bullet points on the things that stood out to me:

  • She does no FTP or critical power or threshold testing on herself. She believes with her experience she knows these things intuitively.

  • She's open about having to adapt when travelling to include things like cross-country skiing and other cross-training. We do plenty of studies on groups but nobody knows what's good for you as an individual and your performance!

  • The biopsychosocial approach: It's more than just the biological training parameters (training intensity distribution, V02 max, time spent doing each sport) that is important to sports performance. Little research has been done on the social and psychological parameters.

  • Triathlon is technical and there are other factors that impact your performance aside your power output. Don't waste time in transitions! Get these details right that aren't related to how fit you are or you are giving away time.

  • She trains with compatible (both social and physical) groups to train with in all three sports. She doesn't monitor power or heart rate but she knows she'll get a good workout with them because they're better than her and she likes them! As someone that lives alone, it's an important part of her social life.

  • Doesn't have a "pain cave", doesn't do turbo trainer workouts, prefers to be outside with other people. Again it's the psychological (being outside) and social (group training) that she's prioritizing.

  • Pacing, an important part of performance, is more about thinking and feeling than analyzing numbers. I wrote on that theme myself. On race day, only goes by feel, not data. If she'd gone by power, she feels she would have been limited by that number.

  • Doesn't use Training Peaks. Uses Excel so she can manually input and process what she's doing.

As with many of us amateurs, she shares the work obligation and her training planning often has to revolve around her busy job and travel schedule. She was also honest in admitting she has the advantage of living alone and having no kids!

So McGawley is self-coached, how does this relate to how we coach others? Over the years the emphasis or the importance I place on the contents of my training plans has become secondary to the context in which they happen. Hence the formation of TCMTriSquad to build a psychologically supportive and social structure around athletes physical preparation (their training plan). Yes, they can do their swim workout on their own with 12-weeks to go before their Ironman but are they getting to the pool in December? Is there a group ride they enjoy and won't miss? Are they finding support and motivation from others?

In the end, athletes are better off training sub-optimally or unscientifically by prioritizing the social or psychological but stick at it for three years because they'll still end up fitter (and happier) than an athlete that can only stick to a plan for 16-weeks and then quits. Don't be afraid to tell your coach what makes you happy because if it keeps you in the game, it's important. And that goes for pros and amateurs.

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