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The Curious Case of Michał Podsiadłowski

Michał’s training has been the subject of so many legends and stories (at least in Poland, where he is the man) that we have decided to shed some light on the facts. If you have ambitious sports goals, but you have to share your time between family and a job, and if your day lasts for 24 hours, then you probably won't find a better case study for free. The passages in italics have been written by Michał and relate to specific training sessions – “ingredients”. The entire recipe for success, from a broader coach's perspective, is written by me in normal font.

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I have been working with Michał since 2012; I prepared him as a coach for his second ever triathlon. One of the first goals that we set in terms of the result was to break 5 hours in a Half-Ironman. It was the Herbalife Susz Triathlon in 2012 when Michał crossed the finish line after 4 hours and 58 minutes. How did his further progress in Half-Ironman and his best results in subsequent seasons look? 2013 – 4 hours and 44 minutes; 2014 – 4 hours and 23 minutes; 2015 – 4 hours and 30 minutes; and finally 2016 – 4 hours and 7 minutes. Why do I mention this? It is very important to know that a high sports level does not result from a training programme such as “how to achieve a PB at 1/2 IM in 16 weeks”, but it is rather the effect of years of consistent and systematic work. Winning the IM Weymouth, or a great performance in Hawaii did not come from nowhere. These achievements are nothing but the effect of over two thousand hours of well thought-out and often very demanding training sessions, plenty of involvement, and hectolitres of sweat.

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In the first part of the preparation period I regularly do the so-called “big ring intervals”. The standard set includes 15 or 20 repetitions of 1-minute interval at a very high intensity and low cadence with a 1-minute easy ride in between. What does it mean “at a very high intensity”? It hurts; in my case it is more or less 450W. How do I cover such a training session? When there are no mountains nearby, it is practically impossible to cover such sessions outdoors. On a flat route you simply can't pedal with such power at a 55 or 65 rpm cadence. When it comes to me, I had problems achieving 320W at a 65 cadence with 53/11 configuration. Here indoor bike trainers come to our aid – preferably with variable resistance or generally controlled via ERG mode. My Wahoo Kickr makes the training much easier to cover – in ERG mode I just set the desired 450W and switch between ERG mode and level mode, which simulates a normal ride. Switching into ERG mode means that the trainer adjusts the resistance itself, so that the generated power equals the set value. You just have to keep your cadence. There is just one problem – when you become weaker, the trainer has no mercy and your legs just give out :)

Considering the scarcity of time that Michał can spend on training sessions and regeneration, we set the priorities very precisely. For example, we both know exactly what to do to swim faster – we have tested various solutions many times and we know what works really well. However, when having a limited time for training, it is simply impossible to apply the most effective solution for a longer period of time without compromising the bike and run training. We reserve our best ammunition for the last weeks before the A-priority race – that is why Michał can swim 3.8km at the main IM race at a faster pace than 1.9km at the "test" 1/2 IM. It is the form on the specific day that counts, and not during the less important race some weeks earlier (not to mention spring running races). It is no coincidence that at the last two Ironman races where he qualified for Hawaii, Michał ran a marathon in under 3h10'. 

540_360_fit_original_99_fgxccmIn each macrocycle I have several weeks with a high number of near-threshold trainings. Training zones are set based on the CTS test and the coach's assessment. Tests are one thing, but the history of trainings and races performed with a powermeter is another, since it can be used to set training zones that are equally effective. TrainingPeaks offers many different metrics that are a helpful tool to check when the thresholds become too low, and when it is time to perform another test or just set the values higher. The standard training is 40–60' at threshold power, divided into several blocks. Generally we start from shorter repetitions and a carefully selected rest time – e.g. 3x8' with a 4-minute break in between. As the physical performance and the body adaptation increase, we lengthen the time of repetitions and of the whole training block – 4x10' with a 5-minute break, 4x12' with a 6-minute break or 4x15' with a 5-minute break. Such training is definitely not enjoyable, quite the contrary – suffering is inscribed in its nature. Near-FTP performance equals 85–90% of the value achieved at the CTS test. Riding in this zone after some time hurts, it is as simple as that. And if it doesn't hurt, then you should check the graphs, because maybe it is time for another test.

For several seasons we have successfully applied the so-called “reverse periodization”. In practice, this means a lower training volume and higher intensity in the first part of the preparation period, and relatively longer and easier training sessions closer to the most important races. For example, the famous very long sessions on the bike trainer do not fall in January or February, but in August, as in case of building up to the Ironman Weymouth, which Michał won. Another thing is how the body adapts to the applied stimuli, and the related decline in post-workout adaptation. In fact, for several months, step by step and layer by layer, we prepare for a number of key training sessions that are specific for the main race. Their good performance translates not only into a deadly effective training in terms of physical condition, but it is also an incredibly important boost in self confidence and simply calmness. Another important issue is high level of stress and duties in non-sport areas of life. Outside the direct pre-race preparation period, we avoid overloading the same physiological areas in different disciplines. When it comes to the Michał's training plan, you will very rarely find the threshold bike training near the running training in the second or third zone. A differentiated training plan, in combination with good motor and technical preparation, can also minimise the risk of injury.

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In the last weeks before an Ironman race, I spend relatively a lot time in the TEMPO zone – its range equals 80–85% of the CTS test value. Although this training is challenging, it does not hurt as much as riding in the SS zone. Here the main challenge is to maintain power for a longer period of time. Intervals in this zone start from 15 minutes, but I was also riding for 90 minutes without a break. These intervals give the most satisfaction, but sometimes they are also very frustrating, when you are too tired to do such training. I clearly remember when, while preparing for an Ironman race in Klagenfurt in 2015, I did not manage to do the training in the TEMPO zone two times. This training session was planned for Saturday and I failed – I was unable to keep the desired wattage already at the beginning of the second interval. The next day, after some rest and a good sleep, I tried again and the result was exactly the same. I remember when my wife gave me great support – despite really beautiful weather outside, I was doing my training of course on the indoor trainer, and my wife was brining me a wet and cold towel every few minutes and putting it on my back, and in the end was cheering me up :) But I also remember a different version of this training, which was a demanding brick training (3h + 2h). The main set of the bike training was 8x15' @ 310W with a 5-minute break, and I managed to keep the wattage perfectly, and after that I ran 24km at 4:28 pace as a brick run. I finished the whole training at 2 a.m. ... As for the brick training, I clearly remember one more training session, because it gave me a great motivational boost before the race in Susz in 2016. The bike training consisted of 90 minutes, including 75 minutes at 310W with six 15-second sprints above 550W. I kept 315W for 75 minutes, and after the ride I ran easily (!!!) 50 minutes at 4:30/km pace.

In each preparation period Michał has regular contact with high speeds in each triathlon discipline. For athletes with longer training experience and more limited time for training, further kilometres run at a "patrol" pace won't bring any breakthrough. High speeds or wattage do not always mean challenging sessions or training at high level of lactate concentration – everything depends on the duration of intervals and breaks.

Now I do 2–4 bike trainings per week, which in the base preparation period gives 4–8 hours. Most bike trainings are endurance rides (known as aerobic workouts). What adds character to these training are the often interwoven, very strong and short speed-ups lasting 15, 20 or 30 seconds – even at 800W, depending on the duration of the interval and the break. The break between the sprints is mostly 2–3 minutes, and I often ride such speed-ups as “start in 3 minutes”, which makes it easier for me to count the repetitions, just by looking at the overall training time. And you can easily get confused when there are 10 or 15 repetitions to be done. If anybody thinks that 10 such sprints is not at all difficult, they may be surprised – the average power of a 2-hour bike training at circa 220W can raise by over 30W due to 10 sprints, and the normalised power even by over 60W up to 280W. This type of training is a strong stimulus, and the average power of a 30-minute training is circa 300W!

A few weeks ago I wrote on Instagram that the athlete's development is always a mix of two contradictory approaches. On one hand “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, and on the other hand “what got you here, won’t get you there”. There are many changes in Michał's life, and there are many changes in his training programme. His best form on the day of the race is always a moving target. That is why I find the coach's job so interesting and satisfying :) Keep your fingers crossed for the upcoming season!

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