A few months ago I received an email from Timex asking me if I were interested in interviewing Timex Multisport Pro triathlete, Dr. Alex McDonald. I love being able to speak to professional athletes about their training. They have a way of showing vulnerability and humility that you would not expect in a world-class athlete. This guy is your typical type-A triathlon slacker. You know the old story: guy decides to take up triathlon on a whim with his friend while attending medical school in Vermont. After his first sprint—he's hooked—and after just three short years of racing becomes the national elite age group champion. Oh, did I mention that he raced to 5th overall finisher at Ironman Wisconsin, and competed in the Ironman World Championships six weeks later finishing in the top 6%? Oh yeah, in 2007, Alex was the U.S. champion at Ironman Lake Placid and 29th overall at the Ironman World Championships. Seriously? Come on man, train harder. I mean, if you are not battling Crowie for first, what's the point? Some of us mere mortals have difficulty understanding why some people are physiological freaks of nature—alla Lance Armstrong—and some of us inherit genes that were not handed down from Mount Olympus. It can not all be the training, right? One thing I did learn about this cat is that his father competed in triathlons when he was a child. Maybe there is hope for my five little triathletes in training?
Without further adieu, here are the questions and answers he provided:
TDOF: One of my biggest fears about training for triathlons is that I will get sick days leading up to a race—or worse—feel ill on the day I am suppose to race. How do you negotiate a race that you've spent time, energy—not to mention some serious dough in the case of Ironman—but know that you are not operating at 100%. Has this happened to you, and what have you done?
Dr.AMD: Before my first Ironman I came down with the flu. I had spent so much time, money and energy training for the race that I did it anyway, even though I was far less than 100%. I ended up with walking pneumonia and was sick for a month afterward. Would I do it again in the same situation? Probably not. The race was a tough experience, as if an Ironman is not hard enough, I was coughing the whole day and felt so drained. However, the month afterward was pure misery, I have never felt so terrible for so long in my entire life, it was not worth it, there is always another race. In general, it is really important to listen to your body when you train, to avoid injury. And using a heart rate monitor (I use the Timex Ironman Global Trainer) and following a good training plan is one of the best ways to do this. It helps you to know how hard you’re working out, and ensure you take enough rest days.
TDOF: Yeah, I am pretty excited about the Global Trainer as well. That might have to be next on my triathlon shower list.
TDOF: There is a lot of talk about proper nutrition, leading up to, and during the race. I find a lot of contrary information. Is the best rule, just to use plans as a template, and determine your nutritional needs on your own by how you feel during training?
Dr.AMD: Nutrition is one of the most individual components of endurance sports. However, the body is also very good at knowing what it needs. That being said, generic nutrition plans are a good place to start and then tailor them to meet you specific needs.
TDOF: I have a love/hate relationship with swimming. When I have the time to do the volume consistently, I can not wait to get in the pool. When I miss a workout or two, I feel like I am learning how to swim all over again.
Dr.AMD: This occurrence is very common both among highly competitive swimmers as well as novices just learning to swim. Swimming is unlike running and biking because you can’t just do it over and over again and get better at it. The mechanics of swimming and the "feel" of the water is very important to maintain and frequency is key. In an ideal world triathletes should swim as often as possible, even if it is just 20-30 minutes of easy drills at the end of the day, everyday. That being said, this is very impractical for most triathletes. The best solution is to swim Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This leaves an athlete with only two days out of the water over the weekend, and gives the legs a relative recovery day on Friday, before the big weekend training, as well as another relative recovery day on Monday.
TDOF: I have never thought about it in that way before; just getting in the pool for a little time each day, apart from my regular workouts. I need to try that.
TDOF: We all have busy lives. When some of us are not busy with our part-time jobs training for Ironman, we like to put some "valuable time in the bank" at home with the people that matter. Have you learned any skills through the years to balancing family life with a high volume of training that you could share?
Dr.AMD: It is certainly a challenge to balance work, family and friends. I think the most important way to keep everyone happy is to make sure your family and friends understand the time and commitments that training for an Ironman requires before any potential conflicts can arise. Additionally, try saving up some "points in the bank" with family and friends in the off season or early season when training is not as important and then cash in these points leading up to the big race day. Lastly, after the race make sure you spend some extra time or energy focusing on all those who have supported you through your training and racing.
TDOF: I've noticed that my workouts are stronger at certain parts of the day than they are at others. Perhaps—like Superman—I am in constant need of vitamin D from the sun for power—but I really have a problem feeling fast when the sun is not out. Should I train when my body feels the strongest?
Dr.AMD: Often schedules and other commitments don't allow many athletes to train whenever they want to, and workouts must fit in and around work, family, friends etc. To ensure that you are training appropriately, a Heart Rate Monitor and/or power meter such as the Timex Race Trainer - or better yet the new Global Trainer which displays power data as well as heart rate - can be a very effective tool to make sure you are getting the most from your workouts. This way, regardless of whether you "feel" good or bad, you can rely on objective data and make the most out of every workout.
TDOF: How much of a difference will a triathlon specific bike make on the bike and run portion for the age-group triathlete?
Dr.AMD: That is a question which is highly specific to the individual. However, in general a TT bike will help a triathlete bike faster and save a little more energy for the run. How much it can help really depends on the athlete and course.
TDOF: Cool, it sounds like my recent triathlon bike purchase might have been a decent investment.
TDOF: How do you negotiate your season when you sustain an injury that is going to keep you from training for a prolonged period of time?
Dr.AMD: Injuries are very challenging, both physically, as well as mentally and this is perhaps the hardest part to negotiate. First thing is to change your race goals, or push them back. Staying motivated with a goal down the road is important; however, if that goal is too close, an athlete might try to push himself or herself too hard too soon when injuries really need time and patience. Second, focus on a non-race goal. For example, diet and body composition can be a great focus when training must slow down or stop. Lastly, if you are able to still swim or bike, make sure you stay active in those sports and focus on other limiters.
TDOF: We all know that you have to invest a lot of time in the physical component of triathlon, but do you have any suggestions for the first time half, or full ironman about any mental preparedness that you can do to get ready. Do you do any visualization with regard to running or swim form?
Dr.AMD: Mental training and racing is a very important aspect of triathlon that is often over looked. I recommend spending time mentally preparing throughout the year, however, especially in the few weeks leading up to the big race. Visualizing perfect technique can certainly be of benefit throughout the year. However, taking 5 minutes every day in a quiet place and simply visualize every aspect of your training and racing can make a big difference. Also trying to focus on staying positive and staying mentally focused during adversity, both in training and racing, can be a very valuable skill to develop.
TDOF: For an amateur, deep wheeled rims might shave a whole minute off of an ironman distance course—maybe. What one piece of gear DO you think would make a significant difference for the age-group triathlete that they might be overlooking?
Dr.AMD: Wheels certainly do make a difference and make you faster on race day. However, training with a Timex Heart Rate Monitor and a power meter makes you faster and stronger all the time! If an athlete is saving up for a triathlon purchase, I recommend purchasing a Timex Heart Rate Monitor and a power meter and then simply renting wheels on race day!
TDOF: What was your introduction into the sport and how long do you think you will continue to race triathlon?
Dr.AMD: My father competed in triathlon when I was younger and I watched him compete as a small child. I plan to participate in triathlon for the rest of my life! :)
TDOF: I plan on racing for the rest of my life as well. I am looking forward to the day when I can actually get out there with any of my children who might be interested.
I would like to thank the Timex Multisport Team, and Tristan over at Catalyst for setting this up, and Dr. Alex McDonald for taking the time to answer some of my nagging questions about the world of triathlon. Good luck this season!
Alex's official home page is http://www.alexmmtri.com. In addition, he also writes a bi-monthly column titled Iron Doc on Xtri.com.
Updates: Great 10 mile speed workout on Tuesday, followed by a six mile shakeout run yesterday. Bike bling to follow shortly!