From Mid-Pack to World-Class
Meredith Kessler's Coach, Matt Dixon, Provides An In-Depth Look At Her Athletic ProgressionOctober 7, 2013
This original article by Matt Dixon appeared in the August 2013 Issue of LAVA Magazine.
Meredith Kessler’s journey from mid-pack to world-class is filled with lessons and inspiration for all levels of athletes. I have been lucky enough to guide Meredith through her athletic progression, and while I take a little credit for keeping her on track, the real credit goes to Meredith herself for displaying every characteristic elite performers need to be successful.
Phase one: exerciser to trainer
The initial part of the process was to evolve Meredith from an “exerciser” to a “trainer.” When she arrived to train in the spring of 2008, her race schedule was already set. I had to be careful to shift her approach without causing an injury or too much fatigue, while improving her sustainable speed. With her heavy work and life commitments, the first thing we did was scale her training volume back 30–40 percent. Of course, we balanced that by adding higher-intensity training in nearly all the key sessions of the week. Despite the fact she was racing Ironman almost exclusively (she hadn’t even finished an Olympic- or half-Ironman distance when she met me), I didn’t focus on Ironman preparation. Instead, I focused on simply trying to improve her as an athlete. We aimed to improve her weekly training efficiency by using a power-based trainer in all key sessions and minimized long and slow sessions, using her strong aerobic base to support the shift to intensity.
She arrived at Ironman Arizona that November worried about lacking the fitness to perform “for 11 hours.” Luckily, she didn’t have to, as she finished in less than 10. It took nine months to evolve Meredith from exerciser to trainer, but by the end of the first season, she was an age-group Ironman champion.
Phase two: elite amateur
I think this might have been the most critical platform for her future success, and it’s one that so many aspiring pros miss. Her performances that first season were good enough to qualify her to race professionally. The discussion about whether to “take the pro card” was short. “No” was the answer I gave. The reason for this was that Meredith was not physically or emotionally developed enough in the sport to be successful at the top level. By now her potential was obvious, but her journey would require patience and management. She was fit, strong and naive—adangerous recipe for a highly motivated athlete. Luckily, she is also very smart and has the ability to plan ahead and develop over time. The strategy for this phase was to train and compete as an amateur and win as many races as possible. The goal was simply to learn how to win.
And win she did, taking overall amateur titles at Wildflower, Ironman 70.3 Vineman and Ironman Coeur d’Alene, among others. My overall assessment of her as an athlete after the 2009 season was that she was getting close.
Throughout this phase of Meredith’s development, we maintained a minimalistic approach to training and continued to focus on ramping up the intensity. When I look back, I am amazed at how many very high intensity and short duration intervals we did in preparation for Ironman events. I don’t think we ever cracked 15 hours of training per week, but we did focus on getting more sleep and improving other critical factors of racing, including fueling, hydration and functional strength.
Phase three: the rookie pro
When Meredith finally progressed to racing at the top level of the sport, I felt going professional was a proactive decision that set her up for success. In her first Ironman race as a professional, in Arizona, she finished a very respectable sixth after riding at the front for much of the race. She raced and competed with some of the top women in the sport. This did not mean that she had “arrived,” and we still had some major steps to take before she would be a true professional athlete. In her first season she had some really solid results, as well as a few not-so-solid performances, but the highlight was an overall win at Ironman Canada. She celebrated her victory with big smiles, but come Tuesday morning, she was standing on the pool deck ready to resume training.
We kept the focus on higher intensity and shorter duration intervals during this initial season of success, but I felt it was going to be time to change this approach very soon.
Throughout those first seasons Meredith continued to hold down her highly demanding job, and she maintained an active social life. But she had arrived at a crossroads in her triathlon career and life. I felt that in order to continue to evolve in the sport and begin to compete at the very top, she needed to make some changes. Luckily, Meredith was already two steps in front of me with her planning, and had set out a personal road map for leaving her finance job.
Phase four: from professional to world-class
This is the phase we find ourselves in now, and we have certainly not finished our journey. These last three years have been a unique part of Meredith’s development in training, performance and mind-set.
Meredith approaches her training in 2013 entirely differently from how she did in 2011. This is not because her approach in 2011 was incorrect, but because she has evolved as an athlete. After the stress burden of 70 to 80 hours of work each week had been removed, it would have been easy for me to boost her training volume. Instead, we took a more patient approach. We replaced those working hours with extra time for sleep, recovery, proper fueling and building sponsor relationships.
It was not until 2012 that we really began to load Meredith with more typical professional-level Ironman training, but we have still not gone back to simply accumulating hours or miles of training. We set 2012 as the year to develop performance consistency and planned a busy schedule of Ironman and 70.3 races. Meredith’s increased strength, fitness and health led to massive performance evolution in training, and that translated to racing performance. She became a front-of-pack swimmer and a stronger cyclist and developed her potential as an elite runner. She was becoming the balanced athlete we had been trying to build—and she won races.
With multiple Ironman titles as well as some impressive Ironman 70.3 wins against tough fields, 2012 was shaping up to be a great breakout season. In fact, it was so good that I decided to shift the focus of the season toward the Ironman World Championship, something we had never done for Meredith. She was a season ahead of where I thought she would be, and I decided she was ready to have an impact at the big race. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. A training accident that resulted in cracked vertebrae and a nasty concussion destroyed the middle of the season. Through massive resilience and resistance to adversity, Meredith managed to come back in time for Hawaii only to crash on the bike while at the front of the race. A disappointment, but not a disaster. The journey to peak performance always has obstacles, and the experiences of 2012 laid the foundation for 2013 and beyond.
Before 2012, I believed that Meredith was confident in herself as a person and athlete, but wasn’t truly sure if she was, or ever could be, truly world-class. While I could see potential here, I believe coaches need to be very careful with how and when to talk to athletes about being world-class.
While 2012 was full of personal adversity, with crashes and setbacks, it was also full of positive experiences that fed into her belief in herself as an athlete. It was no longer a dream; it was an attainable goal—almost an expectation. With this shift in mind-set for Meredith, we are now at the stage in her career where we plan much of the season for success at the major championship races. With this has come a shift in overall season planning and training, with less racing in the middle of the year and greater emphasis on heat-based training preparing for the specific demands of these races.
We set up 2013 with the mission to race some of the best fields out there, putting Ironman Melbourne, Ironman 70.3 St. George and Rev3 Quassy on the list of early season races. We also built much of the plan around preparing for the heat, humidity and winds of Hawaii. This season we have multiple heat-based training camps and are doing extensive work on improving bike handling and riding efficiency.
There is no need to be an aspiring professional to glean some valuable lessons from Meredith’s progression as an athlete. Meredith has proved over the past few years that she has these key characteristics that have been the platform for her success.
Resilience: Both physical and emotional resilience to maintain focus and direction and overcome adversity. Performance evolution is a journey that is bound to be filled with setbacks that require plenty of resilience to navigate and overcome.
Patience: The biggest lesson is time. She hasn’t gotten drawn into the need to have it all too quickly. She realizes that her goals are a process to be embraced, instead of a destination to arrive at.
Planning and vision: This could never have come about without the ability to plan and develop long-term vision. In many ways, the planning has helped Meredith foster patience and resilience, as it has provided the framework and road map for success.
Passion: This is a tough one to coach. Meredith loves triathlon. In fact, she loves her life and approaches it on her own terms and with passion. This passion is the driver for success and consistency. You can’t fake this, and once the passion is gone, it’s over.
Humility: Most great leaders have a certain sense of humility toward others, and Meredith has a greater sense of caring and humility than almost anyone I have met. This is central to the fabric of who she is as a person and a driver of her passion. This sense of humility has allowed her to frame her sport within the context of her life, and maintain a balanced mind-set and sense of perspective in her overall progression. This in turn allows a sense of ease and relaxed excitement in anticipation of racing, instead of fear of not performing well. Meredith’s humility opens the doors to allow physical performance to arrive.
Gumption: How could I end with anything else? This woman has gumption. This sport is tough, and in the heat of race day, good looks, a charming personality and a sharp intellect are stripped away to reveal an athlete’s raw state. The grind and challenge of preparation and the battle that is racing require great toughness, determination and ultimately gumption.
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